Californians, It’s Time To Rethink Your Hiking And Beach Plans, Say Officials

Mar 26, 2020

Guidelines for social distancing don’t equal going out on hikes with your friends, only people in your immediate household, say federal, state and local agency officials. But guidelines also recommend not traveling long distances for outdoor activity.

"We can’t bend the curve if everyone is out," Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a press conference Monday. "I don't want to close big, beautiful open spaces. But we can't see what we saw over the weekend."

Last weekend people crowded beaches and trails across California, as seen by footage on social media and by daily television shows. 

“When you’re on a single-track trail out in our beautiful wilderness, that single-track trail means you’re going up the mountain and down the mountain, which means it’s almost impossible to socially distance,” Newsom said.

Because of all the people not abiding by the recommendations, Newsom says the California Department of Parks and Recreation is closing down parking lots at a number of its beaches and parks. High public-use indoor facilities — such as museums and visitor centers — and campgrounds across the state are also closed. 

Newsom hopes the lack of parking and campsites will deter people from traveling far distances to recreate. 

“When you’re out there and you can’t even find parking at a beach, it suggests you’re not going to practice social distancing and it may suggest you may want to find a new location. But to make it easier for you, we’re going to shut down all state parking lots.” 

Newsom also says the department is stepping up enforcement efforts with a significant number of state park patrol efforts. He says they will have the capacity to fine visitors if necessary. 

Measures like this are important, Newsom says, for reducing the number of cases of people infected by the coronavirus. The state and the CDC’s recommendations include a six-foot distancing rule while the pandemic persists. 

But how do you practice social distancing while hiking or at a public beach? Health experts and parks officials provided some answers and context to questions you asked us about how to safely go outdoors. 

If It's Windy Do Virus Droplets During A Windy Day Travel Farther Than Six Feet?

The good news is that the six-foot social distancing recommendation accounts for things like wind, says Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. 

“Most droplets travel a maximum of three feet, but they could travel up to six feet if you account for a really forceful cough or sneeze, or windy conditions,” said Blumberg. “That’s why the social distancing recommendation of six feet comes with a cushion.

”Of course, it’s not always possible to stay six feet away from people you pass on narrow trails. Still, Blumberg says the more distant you can be, the better. 

“If you are closer, there is less chance of transmission if they are not coughing or sneezing, and even less if they are not talking,” he said. 

Only 36 Of The State’s 200 Plus Parks Are Closed. Does That Contradict ‘Staying Home?’

While gyms and fitness classes are largely shut down during the statewide stay home directive, it’s still important to get exercise. Newsom and public health officials continue to encourage getting outside for fresh air, sunshine and physical movement — only if you can maintain a six-foot distance from people outside your household.

But Adeline Yee, a public information officer with state parks, says the department is encouraging people to stay local and not go to state parks if they’re not in your local area — and by local area she means in your immediate surroundings. 

“We're not encouraging people to drive long distances and get in the car with groups of people,” said Yee. “Unfortunately, that is what we saw on the news and also in social media over this past weekend.”

That’s why Yee says the department chose to close 36 (the number is dynamic and will change over time) parking lots at some of the state’s 220 plus parks. Statewide public offices, museums, campgrounds and cafes are also shut down.  

“If the soft closures don't work and the public doesn't abide by the social decision rules of at least six feet or more, we're gonna definitely have to consider full closures,” said Yee.

She says the department is encouraging people to venture out in your immediate area and only with people in your immediate household. It’s all part of a campaign to “Flatten the COVID-19 Curve at Parks.”

“We’re not  encouraging group hiking … because not only are you not practicing social distancing, but that's going to make it really hard when you're on a trail,” Yee said. She admits most trails are nearly impossible to completely socially distance on.

She also says traveling to a park outside of your immediate area could also put the communities  you travel to at risk.

“We want to make sure that we're respecting their health and their safety needs as well,” said Yee. “It's all at this point is up to the person, right, it's up to the public to make these right decisions and to use common sense.”

Hiking With Social Distance In Mind

A hike with six feet of social distance starts well before the hike during the planning phase, says Joe Flannery, a public information officer with the Tahoe National Forest. 

“The first step is knowing before you go,” said Flannery. That includes the understanding that being too close to people can spread COVID-19 — plus the knowledge of weather conditions, what trails are open, what food and supplies to bring, and other factors.

Many trails are closed because of snow, he says, and the district has closed all restrooms, isn’t offering trash service, and offerings at ranger stations are now online only. That’s why he says it’s imperative for people to pack out all trash and excrement from humans and pets.  

But if you’re on a hike, how do you pass someone with social distancing in mind? Flannery says hikers should “step off the trail, let a group pass or an individual pass and really try and maintain our six feet of social distancing on the trail.”

But Flannery notes his district, and all national forests in California, are following CDC recommendations. Doing so, he doesn’t recommend people explore the forest unless they live nearby —- even for a hike, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. He says social distancing at a higher elevation, because of snow, could be easier but still isn’t recommended if people are traveling far distances. 

“If you're going to go outside, I do encourage you to stay local,” said Flannery. “If you can access that trail on foot walking out your front door, all the better, and really try and do it with just folks from your own household.”

If people choose to explore a hike or a neighborhood park, REI suggests hiking at the ‘wrong time,’ like early in the morning when it’s still dark, later afternoons and midweek. The company, which has closed its stores until the end of March, also recommends choosing a second-best hike or a harder trail where less people are expected to be out. 

Should I Go To My Local Park?

The answer is yes, if it’s very local, like your neighborhood park, says Mario Lara, the city of Sacramento’s director of youth, parks community enrichment. 

“Obviously, for one's mental and emotional well being, being outdoors is important, and people can still be outdoors,” said Lara. That includes things like walking your dog, going for a jog or even throwing a frisbee.  

“Those are the types of activities that they can engage in, they should not be in groups and they should make sure that they remain a close distance from each other,” he added.

While staying six feet away at all times from others he also recommends people avoid play structures, park benches, water fountains and other park features. He recommends bringing trash bags and to abandon plans if the park is too occupied.

Of the city’s 220 parks the only one closed due to COVID-19, Lara said on Tuesday, is a skate park on 28th and B Street..

When it comes to social distancing, Amador, El Dorado, Placer, Solano and Sacramento counties got an ‘A’ grade, according to a social distancing scoreboard by Unacast. But San Joaquin County got a ‘B’ and Colusa, Sutter and Yolo counties received a ‘C.’

San Joaquin County chose to close its public parks this week.

In Sacramento County public parks and golf courses aren’t closed, and county officials aren’t encouraging use, said Ken Casparis, a public information officer over parks for the county. 

“We're not encouraging people to go to parks, we're encouraging them to stay home,” said Casparis. “Should they choose to enjoy the outdoors in our parks? They're open to do so. But at this time, we're not really encouraging people to go out into our parks. We'd prefer if they stayed home.”

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