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Sonoma County grants limited access for public’s return to parks

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To read the revised order, go here.

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For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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

Hiking, running, walking, cycling and fishing will be permitted at all parks in Sonoma County except for those along the coast beginning Wednesday under a revised order issued Tuesday afternoon by Sundari Mase, the county health officer.

But as expected, only walk-in and bike-in access will be allowed, with parking lots closed and visitors risking a ticket if they drive from home and leave their vehicle outside a park to gain entry.

All parks and beaches on the Sonoma Coast will remain closed until further notice, That prohibition, along with limits on Russian River recreation — no swimming, sunbathing, picnicking and water sports — was kept in place to avoid the rush of visitors, including out-of-town residents, that open beaches elsewhere across the state have reported in recent days.

Restrooms also will remain closed at all parks, as will playgrounds, dog parks, campgrounds, sport courts, picnic areas, disc golf courses and the like. Health officials are trying to avoid anything that would involve shared usage or many people touching the same facilities.

“This amended closure order lets residents use their local parks while minimizing the likelihood of unsafe crowding,” Mase said in a written statement. “The community is making an extraordinary effort to flatten the curve of infections, but the risk is still too great to fully reopen parks. I’m asking the public to continue sheltering at home and visit only those parks they can easily walk or bike to.”

Except for those with disabilities or mobility issues, all park visitors must initiate their outings from home without use of a motor vehicle, the order states. Those who drive somewhere, park, and then walk or bike into a park will be considered in violation of the order and subject to citation for a misdemeanor offense.

Those with disabilities and who have appropriate parking placards may make arrangements to drive into four designated parks in different areas of the county, including Riverfront, Spring Lake, Ernie Smith and Helen Putnam, said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. To arrange a visit to a regional park, call 707-565-2041; for a Santa Rosa park, call 707-543-3770. Call 2-1-1 to get the number to all to other city parks department.

Visitors are required to assess themselves for any symptoms of COVID-19 or for any recent exposure to the novel coronavirus before entering a park or using a trail. They also must bring face covers, wearing them when necessary, and ensure they maintain a 6-foot distance from anyone not a part of their families or households.

The so-called “soft opening” loosens restrictions imposed March 23 at all regional and municipal parks countywide, as well as nonprofit preserves and open spaces, after significant crowding at some of the region’s most popular parks and beaches by both local and out-of-town visitors displayed conduct at odds with the county and state’s then-new social distancing and shelter-in-place orders.

But residents’ careful adherence to physical distancing in the five weeks since has brought the local rate of infection from coronavirus to such a low level that Mase determined some restrictions could be eased, allowing residents who live near parks an alternative for their outdoor exercise to the back yards and roadways.

The order applies to paved, off-street trails as well as parks, and gives the county’s nine cities and towns the ability to opt in or out, though Whitaker said he understood all would be participating.

To read the revised order, go here.

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For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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

Inland state parks, including Trione-Annadel, Sugarloaf Ridge and Jack London, are to allow foot and bicycle traffic going forward, in deference to the evolving county policy.

State beaches remain completely closed, along with regional parks and trails on the coast, ocean marinas and the Jenner Headlands preserve.

Walk-in and bike-in visitors will be welcomed at the Lake Sonoma Recreation Area, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, though its remote location may limit use, Area Operations Manager Chris Schooley said.

Though golfing remains off-limits, golf course operators may allow neighbors to use pathways on their grounds for walking, jogging or biking, the order states.

In addition, exercising at school fields and tracks on campuses that otherwise allow community use also is permissible under the revised order.

“It does open up additional opportunities,” particularly in areas where parks may be rare, Whitaker said.

County officials described the revised order as a first step toward eventually reopening the parks in full, and acknowledged significant shortcomings, including the continued closure of the coast, even to its residents.

Thousands of people, many or most from outside the region, have strayed into the Sonoma Coast State Park and other coastal park properties since they were shut down five weeks ago, suggesting that maintaining control of coastal parks if they were opened would be near impossible with existing resources, county officials said.

Both ocean and river beaches already draw significant crowds from outside the area during warm weather, and combined with pent-up local demand for park access, the risk would put too much strain on park personnel, Whitaker said.

“This is temporary,” Whitaker said. “This is the first phase of what we hope will be a continual easing.”

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, who represents the coast and lower Russian River, acknowledged that the order poses “a significant equity issue around who happens to live in walking/biking distance from a park.”

There are also many small parks with little more than some play equipment, which is off-limits under the order and, thus, offers little to neighbors.

Henrietta “Henri” Bensussen, 82, who lives in an apartment near Coddingtown in Santa Rosa, noted that she and fellow apartment dwellers in more urban areas are often most in need of park access.

Accustomed to hiking weekly in one of the county’s larger regional parks, she noted that many of those with access to the places she likes to go already live in park-like settings.

“You know who lives around these regional parks are people who can afford to live in the big house with the big trees,” she said. “The rest of us …we are the people that need it much more than those other people. We have less resources, really.”

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

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