When the San Francisco Bay Area started sheltering in place on March 16, it was following a regional order and common language agreed on by health officers and civic leaders from six counties.
For the most part, the health officers haven’t varied much since on their policies. What you’re allowed to do right now isn’t that different, no matter where in the Bay Area you live — except with parks and open spaces. When it comes to exercise in nature, access and policy diverges widely. Sonoma and San Mateo have fully closed all parks within the county. Marin has closed all of its parking lots, and many parks, but not all of its open space preserves. San Francisco has closed parking lots, but its parks remain open. Individual cities in Alameda County have followed different policies, and the East Bay Regional Park District has closed some parking lots and some parks on some days, while keeping 69 of its 73 parks open. California State Parks has followed local guidance, fully closing its parks in San Mateo and Sonoma while closing only parking lots at Samuel P. Taylor, Mount Diablo and Henry Coe. It’s a dizzying array of rules.
What explains the different approaches? The novel coronavirus has spread differently around the Bay Area, but there’s no obvious connection between community infection rates and park policies. Sonoma County imposed the region’s strictest closure on March 23, when it still had 28 confirmed cases; Santa Clara County, which had 656 cases by March 23, has kept all of its county parks fully open — including many bathrooms and parking lots. But the infection curve has flattened in both counties in the last month, to — as of April 23 — doubling every 70.7 days in Santa Clara and every 38.7 days in Sonoma, according to the Los Angeles Times California tracker. San Mateo County, which closed all parks on March 27 when it had 302 cases, is currently doubling every 24.3 days. In Alameda and Contra Costa County, East Bay Regional Park District General Manager Robert Doyle said the health directors have been steadfast in encouraging the district to keep its parks open. Some public health experts say the benefits of open parks outweigh the risks.
“Every county is different,” said Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Bert Whitaker. “Different population, different when it comes to outdoor recreation. Because of how fast this has moved we’ve all had to take different measures to keep our local communities safe.”
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Santa Clara stands out as the most fully open park district in the region. The 28 parks managed by Santa Clara County Parks and Recreation, which span 52,000 acres, have remained open, including parking lots and many restroom facilities. On March 19 the district waived entry fees at all parks until the shelter-in-place orders are rescinded. Another four open space preserves managed by the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority are also open.
Staff with the county parks agency said Santa Clara has taken a proactive approach to crowding, drawing on years of community building. When the shelter-in-place order took effect on March 17, the district started reaching out to partners in ethnic media. It bought paid advertisements in local newspapers and radio stations and joined in conversations on NextDoor. Especially once other counties started closing parks, said Santa Clara County Parks Strategic Partnerships Manager Melissa Hippard, the district wanted to make sure it could get people into the parks safely.
“We’ve done a very good job of being responsive to changing conditions on the ground regionally, as well as locally, and really investing time and focus in trying to reach people,” Hippard said. “[We want to] let them know parks are still available for health reasons, and at the same time make sure people understand it’s a fragile opportunity. We were sort of the last parks standing, and we want to continue to be in that role.”
Santa Clara Parks Public Information Officer Tamara Clark said the district saw crowding in its parks the first weekend following the shelter-in-place order, but that parks staff and health officers judged the behavior to be manageable. Rain the following weekend helped buy extra time for communication. “We knew we had to deal with the issue in order to keep the parks open,” Hippard said. “That’s when we really started flying at work, started getting a script out for park staff, really started putting into motion all these pieces so we could let the public know, ‘we want to keep these open for you and this is how you have to act when you’re here.’”
The East Bay Regional Park District, the country’s largest regional park system with nearly 125,000 acres of parks, also leveraged long-term relationships to help spread the word about park etiquette, General Manager Doyle said. In addition to media advertising, the agency worked through partners developed in its Healthy Parks, Healthy People collaboration with Kaiser Oakland and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital to share social distancing requirements.
Doyle said the district also benefited from decades of good planning decisions and public support for parks. The result is that open spaces and wide, well-maintained District trails criss-cross the East Bay, providing more access close to where people live, and allowing the District to strategically close and open particular areas to influence crowding while not having to hard close parks. “One of the really saving graces, there’s no other way to say it, is we have such a developed regional trails system,” Doyle said. “Having great public support over eight decades, building this system that’s broad and across the entire East Bay, gives us a portfolio of parks so we have options to manage this crisis.”
Sonoma County Regional Parks manages 54 county parks covering 60,000 acres, but the distribution isn’t even throughout the county. It has the highest percentage of residents that live more than a half-mile from a park of the six Bay Area counties. With even county residents often having to drive to visit parks, and with its coastal areas popular with out-of-town visitors, Sonoma was the first county in the Bay Area to fully close all of its parks, writing in a public health order on March 23 that crowds made it “impossible” for people to safely stay apart.
Whitaker said the district has generally estimated that 40 percent of Sonoma park visitors come from outside the county. Based on behavior that first weekend, Whitaker said, park visitors needed a harsh wake-up call to fully comprehend the threat.
“We took some aggressive actions, they were quite shocking to the community,” he said. “But they achieved the desired outcome, where people saw the seriousness of this across the world.”
San Mateo County Parks Director Nicholas Calderon agreed that, especially the first weekend following the shelter-in-place order, park visitors weren’t taking the order seriously enough. San Mateo first tried a strategy of closing some parks and leaving others open, Calderon said, but that just resulted in more crowding in the parks that remained open. “The huge increase in visitorship, which was unprecedented at the time, made it really hard for people to practice social distancing,” he said.
San Mateo County Parks Public Information Officer Carla Schoof said that rangers saw parents lifting their kids over the closed gates at playgrounds, and people peeing on the side of closed restrooms. Trail hikers on single-track trails called to ask for advice about joggers running by and not giving them space. The agency — 23 parks over nearly 17,000 acres — tried to convert some trails to one-way to manage traffic, but found it too challenging to change people’s long-ingrained behavior. They briefly tried re-opening closed parks to spread the crowds out again, and when that didn’t work, Calderon said, they had no choice left but to fully close all parks.
“I’m always careful to say that under normal circumstances what we want to see is more people in the parks, but people were not able to observe the social distancing order,” Calderon said. “So they were putting themselves and others in harms way. And for us at the end of the day the most important thing is making sure we’re putting a safe environment. We had to do it. We just could not come up with a strategy for creating a safe environment.”
Having fully closed, Calderon said San Mateo County will now try to build on what it learned in the difficult week before it closed all of its parks, as well as what neighbors who have remained open have experienced. Though Calderon said there’s no timeline for re-opening yet, the first phase would likely mean opening one-directional trails for hiking and exercise, a strategy the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority has employed in its open preserves.
Calderon said he’s still wrestling with how to re-open popular parks that can’t be easily converted to one-way trails. Crystal Springs, the county’s most visited park, is an out-and-back — there’s no way to make it a loop. And some beloved parks like Fitzgerald Marine Reserve or Pillar Point are simply too small for one-way trails. Any re-opening, he said, would be contingent on approval from the county’s health officer.
“It’s really the most important message I want to get out, we strive to create a safe environment for our visitors,” Calderon said. “If we’re not able to do so, we’re not comfortable putting people and their health at risk.”
Whitaker said he doesn’t foresee reopening anytime soon, but his priority will be to find trails for Sonoma County residents to use.
“How do we find the balancing point where local residents can get out there and have some normalcy with their families, but not flood these small urban communities with visitors?” he said. “As the health side of this goes on further and further, people need to get outdoors. They need to go on a hike. They need to have those awe-inspiring moments in nature, that’s what keeps us connected as humans.”
The problem is, he added, there’s no history to work from.
“I’ve been in parks management a little more than 20 years,” Whitaker said. “There is no pandemic parks playbook. It doesn’t exist, and it’s never been created.”
And whether their parks are opened or closed, the next challenge will be facing warm weather and a summer of anticipated enormous demand — while dealing with major anticipated budget cuts. Doyle said he’s concerned about what happens as triple-digit summer temperatures approach, and with theaters, malls, restaurants and libraries closed, the bayshore parks are the only public place left to cool off. Like many other industries, the parks have never been more important, and their financial support is cratering.
“We need help from the state and the federal government to be able to manage people and give them relief, because again, we’re the only game in town,” Doyle said. “We need to be 100 percent staffed. At all levels. Police, fire, rangers, 100 percent. We need to be able to bring summer help, seasonal help back as well. We need more help, and that’s going to come down to money.”