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Sonoma County begins broader reopening of parks, beaches to local residents

Know Before You Go

The new Sonoma County parks order is available at

socoemergency.org.

Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker recommended people visit

Regional Parks' webpage and call ahead before visiting distant parks, as conditions are likely to change in the coming weeks and months.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world

here.

Getting outdoors is about to get a whole lot better and easier for Sonoma County residents tiring of the same old thing in now the ninth week of the local coronavirus shutdown.

Beginning Wednesday, local people can drive to their favorite inland parks, leave their vehicles in lots and enjoy a prolonged outing with the knowledge that a restroom is available in most cases, should one be needed.

A revised order issued Tuesday by county Health Officer Sundari Mase opens up those privileges and amenities for local visitors and provides for swimming at several Russian River beaches, as well as access at coastal parks and beaches during morning and evening hours for residents who live close enough to walk or bike from home.

The order applies to both county and municipal parks. A spokeswoman for the City of Santa Rosa Adriane Mertens said city parks were so numerous that it would take 24 to 48 hours to reopen them. She urged visitors to consult the city's website, srcity.org/PreventTheSpread, for guidance.

Until now, a blanket closure of the coast imposed more than seven weeks ago meant people who lived at the sea's edge were forbidden to use public grounds.

Supervisor David Rabbitt called the amended order “a great move forward,” as residents cooped up amid the pandemic yearn for a wider array of open space outlets beyond their neighborhood.

“Our parks this summer are going to be more important than ever,” Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.

The newly revised order expands on a 2-week-old version that allowed residents to visit only those inland county and municipal parks they could reach from their homes on foot or by bicycle.

The latest iteration allows residents to drive to a park, opening parking lots to make that possible. Once they get there, a wider range of activities will be permitted, including swimming and other water sports at Sunset, Steelhead and Memorial beaches on the Russian River - uses and destinations that Whitaker once thought might be off-limits through summer.

“As long as they're socially distanced, we're going to try it,” he said.

While the earlier order restricted activities to walking, hiking, running and cycling, parks visitors now may engage in a variety of “low-risk” pastimes in which they can participate as individuals or members of the same household, without breaking their shelter-in-place bubble. Those activities include things like kayaking, canoing and paddleboarding; pickleball, volleyball and tennis; disc golf and BMX bike riding.

Park operators with community gardens may allow users to grow food there, as long as good hygiene and social distancing are practiced.

Fishing also is permitted where otherwise authorized.

Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday also voted to restore the $7 parking fee that had been waived when the shelter-in-place order was first imposed in March. County residents also may purchase a $69 annual park pass. Those who already own one will receive a 2-month extension to offset the two months during which parks were closed.

With kids home from school, many people off work and all but essential businesses closed until a sliver of curbside sales were allowed last week, demand for park access is greater than ever.

They were closed for more than a month, starting March 24, across Sonoma County after a crush of people from around the wider region descended on local open spaces during warm spring weather just days after health officers around the Bay Area instructed residents to stay at home.

Since mid-April, as the county's coronavirus caseload began to flatten, Mase, in collaboration with Whitaker and other officials, has been trying to find the right time to restore access to parks while balancing the interests of public health.

They found a solution for coastal residents in part through a model adopted in Santa Cruz County, where ocean beaches are closed between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Sonoma Coast parks and beaches similarly will be open from sunrise to 11 a.m. and after 5 p.m. to help discourage visitors from outside the area while still allowing locals to have access by foot or bicycle from home.

The new park access is conditional and could be rolled back if necessary to address overcrowding or signs that visitors were not social distancing sufficiently, Whitaker and Mase said. Officials are encouraging people to stay as close to home as possible in their park forays and have asked that those outside the county not venture here for recreation.

Some parking lots, especially in parks with multiple parking areas, are likely to remain closed for the time being to discourage crowding, Whitaker said. “High-touch” equipment or areas that encourage gathering will remain closed for the time being, including playgrounds, picnic areas, dog parks, campgrounds, pools, outdoor gyms, climbing walls, drinking fountains and barbecue areas.

Know Before You Go

The new Sonoma County parks order is available at

socoemergency.org.

Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker recommended people visit

Regional Parks' webpage and call ahead before visiting distant parks, as conditions are likely to change in the coming weeks and months.

_____

For more stories about the coronavirus, go

here.

Track cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world

here.

Parking areas will remain closed at smaller Russian River beaches like Del Rio Woods, Forestville River Access and Guerneville River park in town near the walking bridge.

All park visitors are required to self-assess for symptoms or recent exposure to COVID-19 and must carry a face covering into all parks to use it if they are in areas where they are unable to maintain proper physical distance from others.

Whitaker recommended parkgoers “just start out wearing a mask” in parking lots, entry ways and the first half–mile of trails, where one is most likely to encounter others.

“Wearing a mask is about sending a message of safety to everyone in the park,” he said.

The revised order also lays the groundwork for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow boats back onto Lake Sonoma, which closed to the public back in March, in alignment with the Sonoma County park closure.

The Corps hopes to reopen the public boat launch at 9 a.m. Saturday morning, said Chris Schooley, area operations manager for lakes Sonoma and Mendocino.

Schooley said the agency still needs a few days to get staff back on-site, complete some buoy work and schedule the trained mussel-sniffing dogs used regularly to prevent vessels contaminated with invasive Quagga and related zebra mussels from introducing them to the reservoir.

As for the recreational area surrounding the reservoir, the Corps hopes to open the South Lake Trail trailhead a week later, and then evaluate progress before opening any more of the expansive open space, he said.

“Those two steps right there are the easiest to implement and also the easiest to step back from if we have to throttle down, if things get out of hand,” Schooley said.

The private Lake Sonoma Marina owned by Rick Herbert will be resuming operations, as well, for more than 300 vessel owners eager to get back on the water for fishing and pleasure boating, he said.

“We're ready. We've been ready,” Herbert said. “People are anxious.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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