Just hours after I was approached to write this article, St. Louis County Parks announced that in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, it would be closing all its facilities the following day. This, less than a week after Missouri State Parks had closed five of its locations.
The official reason given in both cases: overcrowding and careless behavior by park visitors.
(For the record: St. Louis County Parks will remain closed until at least April 22; the affected Missouri State Parks until at least April 30.)
So, now what? The weather is warming up, beautiful spring days beckon, yet the walls seem to be closing in day by day as the stay-at-home order persists. What do we do? How can those of us who live and breathe the outdoor lifestyle find a way to cope? Most importantly: How can we continue to get outside and do so safely and responsibly?
In search of answers, I contacted Emma Klues, vice president of communications and outreach for Great Rivers Greenway. She has been with the organization for six years and is currently spearheading the effort to keep the greenways open at a time when it seems other outdoor spaces are closing by the minute (or at least by the hour).
“We’ve adopted all CDC-recommended protocols and are working closely with state and local authorities to ensure the safety and health of visitors,” Klues told me over the phone between her “new normal” stream of conference calls and video chats.
“We’re in communication with organizations across the country, working to share best practices and procedures,” she continued. “We’ve been putting these into action as quickly as possible to stay ahead of the situation. The ‘six-foot rule’, social distancing, making space for others to use the trail at a safe distance…we’ve implemented it all.”
By now, we’ve all become well familiar with the six-foot rule and the new social distancing norms, but what else does today’s “new outdoor etiquette” entail?
First, the traditional rules of trail etiquette and leave no trace do not go out the window. We should still not trespass on private (or prohibited) land and do our best to protect the condition of our parks and trails. We should still tell someone where we are going and when we expect to be back. Bicyclists should still yield to non-motorized trail users; and all trail users should yield to equestrians.
But considering today’s evolving crisis, “expect things to be different than normal and plan accordingly,” Klues advised. “Public restrooms and water sources are temporarily closed. Don’t touch anything unless you absolutely have to — park benches, bike racks, crosswalk buttons, etcetera. If you do touch something, carry hand sanitizer and wash your hands immediately after contact.”
In addition to planning, “communication with other trail users is key, especially at intersections, bridges, and narrow sections of the trail. When approaching from behind, give six feet of space and alert others to your presence. When passing oncoming traffic, get single file with others in your group and share the trail,” Klues said.
“We’re also encouraging people to consider the timing of their visit to the greenways,” Klues added. “If you’re able to use the trail at a less-popular time, do so. It’s better for you and helps thin out the crowd at high-usage times.”
Speaking of high usage, Great Rivers Greenway uses electronic counters to track usage along various sections of its trails. Data collected by these sensors showed that usage rates jumped 360 percent during the month of March, when St. Louis officials began recommending that people shelter in place.
One thing is clear: As the stay-at-home order settles in, more and more people are going to be looking for ways to get out of the house. Again, how can we do this responsibly? Here are a few additional pointers:
Avoid crowded spaces. This is the most important tip — and definitely the reason many of our parks are already closed. Crowds mean contact, contact means spread, spread means more people in hospital beds. If your “go-to” park happens to remain open, 1) be thankful and 2) be judicious of your use. As more parks close, the inevitable effect will be a funneling of people from those closed spaces to those that remain open. Pay attention, adjust your usage, and if the area looks crowded, go somewhere else. In other words, DO NOT park on the grass, spread out your blanket right next to another group, and say, “Well, those people are doing it….” Those people are wrong. Parks are not carefree zones where social distancing protocols can be ignored.
Go small. You; you and your partner; you and your kids; you and your dog. Fewer bodies mean smaller crowds, smaller crowds mean more space, more space means less spread, less spread means less people in hospital beds. It’s simple-yet-crucial math.
About your dog. Like any other touchable surface, animals can pass along germs. For that reason, it’s important to keep your dog on a leash and at least six feet away from other trail users. Likewise, if a dog approaches you at a park or on a trail, it’s wise to keep your distance and not pet it.
Be quick. Don’t spend the whole day outside. Instead, plan short, purposeful excursions. If you’re going outside to exercise, get your workout in and leave. Don’t linger on the trails or in the parking lot — finish what you came to do and go home. This creates space for others and lessens crowding in popular places.
Be vigilant. Practice persistent hygiene. Wash your hands. Carry hand sanitizer. Don’t touch anything. Give space when necessary. If you have any symptoms at all — STAY HOME.
Be respectful. If a park is closed, it’s closed for a reason. Don’t hop the fence or move the signs or ride your bike around the barricades or find a side entrance. “The issue is quickly becoming having enough healthy park staff to manage these spaces,” Klues told me. Entering closed areas puts more people at risk. Don’t do it. Find somewhere else to go.
Be kind. You’ve surely heard it: We’re all in this together. In a time when fear and uncertainty are running rampant, compassionate and empathetic human interaction — from six feet away — is one of the best cures for the loneliness and isolation many are currently experiencing. Acknowledge others on the trail; talk to neighbors you’ve never met before; even a smile and a wave says, “I see you”.
Believe it or not, parks departments and other outdoor facilities do not want to close. If they must, they will, but if we all abide by the guidelines above and do our best to “flatten the curve”, then there’s hope. Great Rivers Greenway is setting a good example of promoting personal responsibility while enjoying the outdoors.
The City of Wildwood has taken the progressive step of closing the parking lots at several of its parks and trailheads — but the facilities remain open. This action is intended to discourage overcrowding and close congregation by groups while still allowing people to get outside for their mental and physical health.
“We will continue to monitor the degree and manner of usage of our parks and related facilities, and take additional measures as may be warranted to promote the safety of our residents,” the City of Wildwood stated in its news release announcing the parking lot closures.
In other words, it’s up to us to behave responsibly and keep the remaining parks and trails open.
I went down to the Meramec Greenway in Valley Park just before I completed this article. The sun was shining, the weather perfect for a run. The parking lot was about half full, no one lingering around their cars or the pavilion. I headed down the path, sharing smiles, waves, and greetings with those I encountered. I noticed most people adhering to the six-foot rule. I was encouraged, and happy to be outside my four walls, under the open sky.
We can do this, St. Louis. I know we can. We can still safely enjoy the outdoors — working together while staying responsibly apart.
Author: Nick Tilley is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.