To close or not to close? The debate over parks in a pandemic

Walkers on the Ashokan Rail Trail keeping what looks to be a proper distance apart. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

With nearly every business closed, parks, nature preserves and rail trails across the Hudson Valley are seeing more use than ever before. For those who use them, the fresh air and exercise are a welcome reprieve from lockdown-induced cabin fever. For others, the sight of full parking lots (especially with out-of-state plates) and groups of people are cause for alarm; they could be spreading the virus.

Concerns about crowding at parks have prompted closures. States like Oregon and New Jersey have closed all state parks. Here in New York, Rockland and Sullivan counties have closed county parks.

Advertisement

State parks have remained open, with fees waived, but parking has been cut back. Parking areas at Minnewaska have been limited to 50 percent capacity and has had to close its gates to new visitors by around noon on nice days. Most playgrounds and basketball courts have been closed due the ability of the novel coronavirus to persist on metal surfaces and the impossibility of playing basketball without close contact (assuming you want to play defense).

Mohonk Preserve closed on March 23, citing “severe overcrowding” and an inability to maintain social-distancing. “Congestion points like trailheads, parking areas and traditional gathering spots on the Preserve were unsafe for both our visiting public and our staff,” said Gretchen Reed, the preserve’s director of communications.

But most green space remains open. Not everyone is happy about this.

For example, in each Facebook town hall hosted by Ulster County Executive Pat Ryan, numerous commenters demand park closures.  A sample:

“All rail trails should be closed, it’s packed everyday all day! People need to stay home and stop the spread!”

“Keep the NYC people out of the county!!! Close the parks and start fining people for being out!!!”

“Will you close the rail trails? All parking lots were packed last week. Totally impossible to stay distant.”

Ryan said the discussion is being had whether to close county parks, which include the Ashokan Rail Trail. He urged residents to follow guidelines against congregating in groups and to always remain six feet apart.

“I’m hesitant to [close the parks] because it is one of the few valves for people to get fresh air, but if we continue to see folks not following the social distancing at those sites, we’re going to have no other choice,” he said.

Minnewaska has remained open, but with 50 percent of parking spots blocked off to cut down on density. (Photo by Julie O’Connor)

Violators can be reported

On Monday, April 6, Gov. Cuomo announced that fines for violating social-distancing rules would double from 500 to 1000 dollars. “It’s my way of saying, this is serious,” he said. “Raising the fine is my way of saying, enforce the law.”

On Thursday, April 9 County Executive Ryan highlighted a section on the county’s website that links to the state complaint form for violators of the state’s PAUSE Act, which forbids non-essential gatherings of any size for any reason and the operation of non-essential businesses (that is, businesses not on this list). The social-distancing part of the form asks for a date, time and estimated number of individuals observed at the location. Ryan said complaints would be routed through local law enforcement and municipal leaders, and the county would “strictly vet” complaints before taking action.

Given the difficulty of enforcing the social-distancing rules, so far most places have opted to simply close their parks or urge voluntary compliance rather than prosecute violators. That may be changing. Saugerties Police Chief Joe Sinagra shared a warning letter on Friday, April 10 he said was sent to two alleged violators – a non-essential business said to be operating, and a marina that hosted a work party in order to put their dock in service.

“Please take notice that you or your business is/are the subject of a complaint received by the New York State Pause Enforcement Task Force relative to alleged social distancing protocol and or operation of a business establishment deemed non-essential, in violation of NYS Executive Orders 202.6, 202.7, 202.8, 202.10, and 202.11,” it begins. The letter says violations will first be addressed “in the least invasive enforcement approach” (warning letters) before advancing to fines, which can run into the thousands of dollars for businesses.

 

Scenic Hudson has kept all but one of its parks open, but is closing off gathering places, such as this one at Poet’s Walk in Dutchess County. (Scenic Hudson)

Few complaints made to Scenic Hudson

We asked Scenic Hudson, which operates 44 parks up and down the river, if they’d heard complaints over large groups and non-socially-distance walkers. Rita Shaheen, director of parks and community engagement, said the parks are certainly seeing an increase in visitation, but, with one exception, the organization hasn’t received complaints or demands to close. Just the opposite- employees who have entered the park to do maintenance have observed visitors behaving responsibly, and anecdotally, visitors have said that’s been their observation as well.

The exception was Mount Beacon, where the parking lot and trail was narrow and congested enough to be causing problems. (Similar reasons were given for closing Kaaterskill Falls in Greene County last week.) Shaheen said the organization had received complaints prior to closure and the consensus among visitors was that it was a good idea to close it.

The organization has taken other measures, such as blocking off areas where congregation is likely to happen, like the pavilions at Poet’s Walk in Dutchess County, removing brochures and replacing them with QR codes that will send park info to visitors’ cell phones, removing or blocking off toilets, and installing signage urging social distancing. The plan is to continue monitoring activity and assessing things on a park-by-park basis.

“Our overall mission is to connect people to the Hudson River and its amazing landscapes and all the natural assets that we have here,” she said. “And our network of parks are the places that can do that. And now, more importantly, because there’s a place to seek solace, peace of mind, and to relax, to exercise during this really challenging time. So we’ve made the decision to keep the parks open.”

A playground in Saugerties. (Photo by Dion Ogust)

A natural disinfectant?

An April 7 article in The Atlantic argued against closing parks. “The outdoors, exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are all good for people’s immune systems and health, and not so great for viruses,” writes Zeynep Tufekci. She cited evidence for the link between exercise and a strong immune system and for vitamin D, which is synthesized by exposure to sunlight, helping to ward off respiratory diseases. She also mentions a 2009 analysis of the success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 flu pandemic that concluded that people should be encouraged to spend as much time as possible outside during the next pandemic.

The old phrase “sunshine is the best disinfectant,” usually used in the context of government transparency, applies. “From many lab and other studies, we know that ‘ultraviolet radiation inactivates influenza virus and other viral pathogens and that sunlight kills bacteria,’ writes Tufekci, quoting the 2009 analysis.

Closures of parks can have the effect of pushing people indoors, obviously less ventilated than the open air, and to the remaining parks that are still open, causing overcrowding. Indeed, the decisions of nearby counties and the state of New Jersey to close parks has been cited by many as reasons that parks further north should pre-emptively close, before swarms of visitors from areas farther south with higher rates of infection come up here to recreate.

Advertisement

On Thursday, April 9, county executive Ryan said the county would be monitoring visitation and deciding whether to close any parks. “Especially heading into this weekend, if the weather’s looking nice, we may have to look at that.”

Ryan did not end up choosing to close the parks. But law enforcement have been on the lookout for violators. The subject came up at the Tuesday, April 14 Facebook town hall with Ryan and Ulster County Sheriff Juan Figueroa.

Figueroa said a deputy patrolled the Ashokan Rail Trail, which is the most used county property, over Easter weekend. He said the report was that there were some groups that were walking together, but they were generally families who have been spending the lockdown indoors together anyway, so social distancing “is not really a requirement.” Most others, who weren’t related, were maintaining social-distancing, said the sheriff. “Just because you see a parking lot full, doesn’t mean that the people aren’t practicing social distancing.”

He said residents who see others violating the rules should speak up- to the violators that is.

“It’s not just us in law enforcement or the county executive’s office; if you see people that need to be distant then say so. It’s your obligation because we’re trying to save lives.”

This post was updated on April 15. 

There are 5 comments

  1. Maralyn Master

    Only Ulster County residents should use the rail trail, and the Ashokan trail as well asOverlook Man and Slide mtn

    1. Bill H

      These trails are not yours because you live close to them, and you don’t get to decide who should be there and who should not. That is a territorial and elitist position. Everyone in the state (and beyond) has the same right to use them, and there is great need for them right now. And they are open to all people for a reason. If you are uncomfortable walking them, avoid them, because you have no more right to be there that someone from Rochester or Long Island. People simply need to follow the social distancing guidelines, including staying home if you are sick and wearing a mask if we cannot pass others at reasonable distances. Let’s not start claiming state parks as our own.

  2. Erica

    We are fortunate to have outdoor space in our yards. Use that space and STOP going to parks. DO NOT put our police at risk to enforce social distancing that will affect our front line workers. BE RESOURCEFUL and NOT SELFISH.

  3. Dwayne

    There’s an interesting article on a bicycling website (cyclingnews.com from UK). A Belgian doctor did a study on the safety of exercising outside. When traveling at speed (even walking at 4 km/h), a person leaves a slipstream that makes the safe distance considerably greater than the “standard” 1.5 to 2 m. It’s *much* safer to move side by side than in a line. There are a lot of graphics and numbers. Personally, I’d only hike / run / cycle alone, and in a more isolated area than on a bike path or rail trail (passing someone is an issue). YMMV. I suggest reading the article, but doubt I can post a link here (editors invited to investigate).

  4. Lisa

    “with nearly every business closed…”I don’t know where the writer was visiting but take a drive down Albany Avenue and Route 9 and see exactly what IS open – how is a mattress store essential? How are Walmart and Target essential for anything other than groceries or meds? Augustine Nursery? Brown’s Florists? Sunrise Bagels? that place is small to begin with – people are flowing in and out of that place and you know they’re not at a 6′ distance…

Comments are closed.