State Park Service staff resumes regular events at Fort Macon

U.S. Coast Guard personnel fire a replica cannon June 9 at Fort Macon State Park during the first Evening Gun event at the fort since Gov. Roy Cooper lifted state  restrictions on public gatherings. (Mike Shutak photo)

ATLANTIC BEACH — After over a year without any events, the N.C. State Park Service at Fort Macon State Park in Atlantic Beach has returned to regular programming.

Fort staff announced May 28 regular events have resumed. While visitors have been able to continue visiting Fort Macon during the coronavirus pandemic, there haven’t been any events there for more than a year due to social distancing restrictions in place at the time.

Fort Macon Superintendent Randy Newman said staff is glad to get normal operations going again.

“Park staff and volunteers have been asking to resume fort tours, cannon firing, bird hikes, etc.,” he said. “Everyone that has called is excited to get things back to normal. We already had some school groups attend programs at the park.”

Even without the events, visitation at Fort Macon has been steady, according to Mr. Newman. He said visitation from Jan. 1 to May is up 197,241 visitors over visitation from the same period in 2020.

“Last year the park was closed from March 27 through May 9,” Mr. Newman said. “Comparing it to 2019, when the park wasn’t closed, visitation is up 75,270 visitors for the current year.”

Fort Macon park ranger and historian Paul Branch said the pandemic has been “a very frustrating experience for the park.”

Some projects have been delayed as a result of the pandemic, including repairs from Hurricane Florence in 2018.

“The fort got flooded during Florence and all the floors and electrical service had to be replaced in its entirety,” Mr. Branch said. “The exhibits were also in water and had to be repaired as well. After 2 1⁄2 years, these repairs are still not finished, and estimates are they won’t be (finished) until this fall.”

As a result, the Fort Macon museum is still closed.

Mr. Branch said while there were no public programs at the fort during 2020, staff resumed guided tours April 15, since they fell under the maximum state limit of 100 participants in place at the time.

The first regular event held since the governor fully lifted restrictions was a cannon firing demonstration held May 29. Mr. Branch said the next Cannon Day programs are scheduled for Saturday, June 19, Sunday, July 4, Saturday, Aug. 7 and Saturday, Aug. 4.

The Evening Gun program with the U.S. Coast Guard cannon crews has also resumed, Mr. Branch said, “and will continue through the summer every Wednesday at 4 p.m. through August.”

While summer concerts have been held at Fort Macon in previous years, Mr. Branch said it’s too early to tell if staff and volunteers will be able to arrange for any this year.

“If we’re able to schedule any concerts this summer, we’ll let everyone know,” he said.

Mr. Branch echoed Mr. Newman’s statements, saying Fort Macon staff is “overjoyed to be able to give programs again.”

“This is part of what we do here: interpretation and education of the park resources, whether it’s fort history or the natural history of the North Carolina coast,” he said. “I know everyone is ready to get back to some sense of ‘normal.’ (Visitors) have been very receptive to what we’re offering and we had many inquiries from the public asking if we were going to resume our programming once the restrictions were lifted.”

Mr. Branch said 2021 is shaping up to be “another big year for visitation.” He said most of the state’s parks are experiencing big crowds.

“People are tired of COVID-19, tired of restrictions, tired of bad news and dire predictions and tired of being cooped up,” Mr. Branch said. “I think it will be a big year for everyone, and especially for Fort Macon, since we can offer programs again.” 

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