Keeping a Safe Physical Distance in Parks and on Trails

March 26, 2020, Feature, by Richard J. Dolesh and Allison Colman

2020 April Feature Keeping a Safe Physical Distance 410

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic hit many parts of the United States with full force the weekend of March 13–15, 2020. Following on the heels of cancelling large special events, conferences and sporting events, governors in several states declared states of emergencies and local school districts across the country closed schools. Mayors took unilateral action to close public spaces and ordered the closing of business, including bars, restaurants and other places of leisure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued updated guidance for businesses, organizations and government to hold no activities with more than 50 persons and has since revised that guidance to prohibit gatherings of more than 10 persons. Governors of many states have now ordered non-essential businesses closed and shut down all public activities and most travel outside the home except for essential activities.

CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been emphasizing that to control the COVID-19 epidemic, we must “flatten the curve,” that is, reduce the amount of transmission of the virus. Some proven ways to accomplish this are physical distancing — keeping six feet or more from other individuals — and taking precautions to wash hands, refraining from being in enclosed spaces with other people and disinfecting surfaces.

Even with the extreme care states and localities are taking to prevent non-essential travel and activities outside the home, most jurisdictions are still encouraging people to take time daily for safe outdoor physical activity.

Parks’ Role in Our New Reality
People across the country are working toward adjusting to the new reality that they must restrict their activities outside the home for some time to come. Many parents now have the added burden of caring for children while working remotely, and some are faced with the situation of needing to work with few or no childcare options. Meanwhile, local and national leaders are using their collective voices to stress the seriousness of this situation, encouraging all people to think of their family members, neighbors and community during this time of trying to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One thing is certain — as our daily lives change and we adapt to a new reality, people want to be outdoors and use open outdoor areas of parks and trails to keep physically and mentally healthy, and to provide activities for kids who suddenly have limited or no school and unlimited time without being able to hang out with friends. For many people, local parks and trails have become a lifeline to physical and mental health.

Park and Recreation Data and Guidance
Observations and agency-reported data from the past month have shown that there was a surge of public use of trails and open outdoor areas of parks as local and state governments gradually shut down businesses, entertainment and non-essential functions. While most park and recreation agencies have completely closed indoor facilities, cancelled programs and closed off playgrounds and other park amenities, they have not locked down parks and trails. In fact, reporting data collected by NRPA in weekly Park Pulse polls demonstrates that 90 percent of park and recreation agencies continue to keep open all of their trails, and three-quarters of local parks and regional parks remain open.

However, half of beaches remain closed. As Chicago Park District’s extremely popular Lakefront trail and beaches have shown, their lakefront trail and all beaches had to be closed because the crush of visitors on good weather days did not allow for adequate physical distancing. Similar situations have developed at other high-use destinations in large urban areas.

Ninety-three percent of playgrounds are closed. Interestingly, while 54 percent of agencies reported dog parks remaining open into the beginning of April, that number has now dropped to less than half (40 percent) remaining open because of the inability to retain enough physical distancing during peak use periods.

CDC has recently released guidance for park and recreation visitors, facility maintenance and park administrators, which provides much useful information. While these federal recommendations are provided to help make decisions, park and recreation professionals should continue to collaborate with all state and local public ordinances and adhere to guidance from local public health officials.

Dog walking presents challenges of its own. In order to maintain safe physical distancing, NRPA recommends that all dogs remain on a leash at all times in parks. Dog owners should be especially careful to maintain safe physical distance from other dogs and persons whether they are on trails or visiting public dog parks.

If open areas of parks and trails are allowed to remain open and public use is not restricted by other governmental direction, NRPA offers guidance on several issues that may arise as a result of continuing public use of parks and trails.

Staff guidance and PPE – Staff will be on the frontlines of dealing with the public and ensuring that facilities are disinfected and safe for public use. Therefore, training of all staff on the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is vital, especially for those maintenance staff who are assigned cleaning and custodial duties, and those frontline staff who must be in the parks or on the trails dealing with the public. It is the agency’s responsibility to provide staff with necessary PPE, including hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and spray, gloves, safety glasses and other equipment deemed necessary, including masks. CDC recently released updated guidance advising all people to wear face coverings in areas where physical distancing is challenging to adhere to, and a number of cities and states are now requiring people to wear masks or face coverings when entering stores, and some requiring their use at any time people are likely to encounter trouble physical distancing from others.

Public information and education – Effective public communications about physical distancing and other guidance or regulations are a critical agency responsibility. This applies to agency communications to both the public and staff. For public communications, signage in common public-use areas is suggested. Also, if play equipment, bathrooms or other park facilities are closed to public use, effective signage should be in place and inspected regularly to ensure the public is adhering to closures. Agencies should ensure that all community members can access and understand information, so employing a variety of communication tactics is needed to relay messaging. This may include using different mediums, including physical signage installed in parks and on trails, online messaging, social media, websites and in different languages.

Recommendations for trail users on observing physical distancing minimums – There are a number of specific recommendations for advising the public to keep safe physical distancing when in parks or on trails:

  • Follow CDC’s guidance on personal hygiene prior to heading to trails — wash hands, carry hand sanitizer, do not use trails if you have symptoms, cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and cover your face when out in parks or on trails.
  • Observe CDC’s minimum recommended social distancing of six feet from other persons at all times. Practice keeping this distance and know what it looks like. Keep it as you walk, bike or hike.
  • Warn other trail users of your presence and as you pass to allow proper distance. Step off trails to allow others to pass. Keep minimum distances at all times. Signal your presence with voice, bell or horn and remember that you are not only protecting yourself, but also other people.
  • Note that trail and park users are more than likely to find public restrooms closed. You should be prepared before you leave home and time outings so that you are not dependent on public restrooms.
  • Bring water or drinks; public drinking fountains may be disabled and should not be used even if operable.
  • Bring a suitable trash bag to take whatever trash you might generate on your outing. Leave no trash and take everything out to protect park workers.

As the pressure to reopen the economy and return to more normal patterns of daily life amounts, local and state governments are already beginning to consider plans on how they will reopen businesses, government and social life. Parks and recreation will be included in those decisions, with a high likelihood of reopening in phased approaches based on safety, need for essential services, staff capacity, budgets and other factors.

There is no question that this is a fluid and evolving situation. The experiences of other countries have shown that more stringent measures may be employed as the arc of the virus infections increases or diminishes. State and local governments may continue to restrict peoples’ use of public spaces and private facilities — even as they cautiously reopen some parks, beaches and trails to the public.

This guidance is current today, but park and recreation professionals and agency directors should monitor CDC guidance and local, state and federal requirements daily. For more information and up-to-date guidance for park and recreation professionals, visit NRPA’s COVID-19 resource webpage.

This is a revised and updated version of NRPA’s blog post on maintaining social distancing in parks and on trails. To read the original text, visit NRPA's Open Space Blog.

Richard J. Dolesh is Editor at Large for Parks & Recreation magazine. Allison Colman is Director of Health at NRPA.