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Sonoma County poised to offer some public access to parks, with eye on social distancing

Initial plans envision limited access to paved multi-use trails as well as walk-in or bike-in access to parks within reach of residents’ homes.|

Intense discussions are underway among local officials to crystallize plans for allowing residents limited access to Sonoma County’s parks after they were closed a month ago to stem the risk of coronavirus spreading among the local populace.

Top elected and appointed officials in county government, including Health Officer Sundari Mase, have endorsed the move, with leaders citing test results that they said show progress in suppressing growth of COVID-19 cases.

Given that evidence, and clear pent-up demand in the community as the shutdown drags on and days grow warmer, a first step toward allowing people some opportunity to access local parks seemed warranted, leaders said.

Any misstep, however, could eclipse gains made to control the virus’ spread, so initial plans envision access limited to paved multi-use trails, like the popular Joe Rodota Trail, as well as walk-in or bike-in entry to parks within reach of residents’ homes, park officials and county supervisors said.

“We don’t want to go backward,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “But at the same time, we want to offer some hope and ability to exercise outdoors, now that it’s a spring, and see if we can exercise in a way that doesn’t endanger our vulnerable populations.”

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said she hoped to have more official plans over the weekend or early next week.

Playgrounds, restrooms, picnic areas and other high-touch, tight spaces that make physical distancing difficult would remain closed, officials said.

Beaches and parks on the coast would remain closed for the near future, largely because of the risk that they would draw unwanted visitors from outside the region who already account for a disproportionate share of the thousands scofflaws who state park rangers have encountered in recent weeks on closed stretches of coastline, officials said.

It’s unclear what’s in store for Russian River beaches, but park officials have similar concerns about the potential to lure people from far beyond nearby neighborhoods, as the river does this time of year.

Any loosening that would unduly expose local residents or tend to encourage nonessential travel while a statewide shelter-at-home mandate remains in place would not pass muster with Mase, who has final approval on any change in the county’s current order, Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker said.

That order spelling out a host of social distancing rules and business closures expires May 3, but a revised extension is widely expected.

The provision of some park access is viewed as a first phase of what could be many steps before parks are fully reopened, each move forward dependent upon the last having no adverse effect on the amount of illness in the county.

“We need to take the time and try to do this in the most responsible way we can,” Whitaker said.

The county also is coordinating with leaders in nine local cities and towns that also posted closed signs on their municipal parks back in March, Whitaker said.

“We really want it all to happen as simultaneously as possible, so that you don’t get the balloon effect, where everyone is going to the same place at once,” he said.

Sonoma County is one of two in the nine-county Bay Area that has shuttered all of its parks - city, county and state - since a week or so after shelter-in-place orders were imposed around the region. That move stemmed from a crush of people descending on open spaces in the initial days and over the first weekend during what was spring break for many students and an otherwise foreclosed social calendar for local families.

Throughout the region, park officials reported mass crowding that defied the intention of social distancing orders they had just put in place.

The throngs along the coast were so thick that Marin County closed all parks March 22, followed the next day in Sonoma County by an order from Mase, who closed parks and public lands and recreational water access across the county. She urged residents to continue to get outdoors close to home, in their yards and neighborhoods.

Marin County moved a little more than a week later to allow bike-in and walk-in access to parks, similar to what Sonoma County is mulling.

In Santa Cruz County, parks and beaches were closed for a week around Easter after the area was overwhelmed in the wake of park closures in neighboring counties, said Santa Cruz County Parks Director Jeff Gaffney.

Since then, many of the parking areas remain closed, and visitors appear to be primarily local residents who are complying with social distancing requirements, Gaffney said.

Sonoma County residents accustomed to relatively easy access to a wide array of parks and public land have struggled with the deprivation and bristled over the prospects they would continue to be shut out.

“We all need to get our exercise, but we all need to be around nature, too,” said Steven Riedel, a piano teacher who lives in downtown Santa Rosa and likes to run and ride his bicycle, “and there’s no place to go here. There’s no place to escape.”

With job losses spiking, rising food insecurity and many adults forced to work remotely with school-age kids confined to home, stress and uncertainty are at an all-time-high for a broad swath of residents. Even Mase, at a recent press briefing, agreed access to nature and the outdoors could be “hugely beneficial,” if the risk of serious illness could be mitigated sufficiently.

Allison Spicher, a family medicine resident who lives in an apartment in Santa Rosa, agreed.

Speaking from personal experience and from her observations as a physician, she said the physical and mental health benefits of outdoor exercise were particularly important now, amid signs of increased anxiety and depression even among people who have never experienced such problems before.

Many patients, she said, even seem confused about whether they’re allowed to walk outdoors at all, and having access to parks would further signal its importance, she said.

Zane and fellow Supervisor James Gore said they’re also concerned about people who live in high-density housing, who have no yard where children can play.

“The reason that parks are a flashpoint is it’s the only area that is truly public, that the public can feel ownership and get outdoors,” Gore said, “and right now the public is being told that the only place that you can walk that is public is on your streets, and that’s not enough.”

So when the new revised rules do come out, Gore added, “the biggest thing for the public to realize is if you don’t follow orders around face covers, hygiene, social distancing, and if you don’t keep your frustrations in check - if you’re a part of the problem - then don’t be surprised if the restrictions go back in place. You have to be a part of the solution.”

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

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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