Will parks in Portland, Gresham lure COVID crowds?
It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood — and that's the problem.
The public health measures combating COVID-19 have changed nearly every facet of modern life — plunging schools into the virtual realm, emptying out shops, bars and restaurants and canceling cultural, religious, civic and athletic events across the board.
With all eyes on the coronavirus curve, officials across Multnomah County are closely monitoring the remaining spaces where residents will be most tempted to congregate: leafy parks and city-owned trails.
For now, at least, the news is mostly good.
"Many people are really well spatially distant from each other," said Larissa Doty, a city greeter patrolling Laurelhurst Park in Portland on Saturday, April 11. "This is way reduced from normal."
Portland Parks & Rec deployed greeters to help enforce social distancing guidelines at four of its 200-plus parks and natural areas this week, with plans to expand beyond hotspots like Mount Tabor and the waterfront to as many as 30 greenspaces by next weekend, employees say.
That's in addition to the 1,000 signs already posted, warning of the immediate closure of playgrounds, athletic fields and courts for tennis, basketball and other sports.
Governor Brown directed golf courses, city parks, and some natural areas to remain open. This weekend we will have @PDXParksandRec employees and over 1,000 new signs educating the public about the importance of maintaining physical distancing. More info: https://t.co/ROq22dMKIi https://t.co/FqfdqDFMlK— Mayor Ted Wheeler (@tedwheeler) April 9, 2020
Mark Ross, a spokesman for the parks bureau, says reports of lower than normal usage are gratifying. "It's very hard to be physically separate from others. You can feel the frustration," he said. "Unfortunately, as tough as that feels, this is really the time when we need to double down."
Elizabeth Coffey, a spokeswoman for Gresham, says the city recongizes the importance of fresh air and exercise, and isn't planning further closures beyond playgrounds and the skate park. "There do seem to be a lot of people using the parks, most likely due to the nice weather, and the desire to get out of the house," she said.
It was a similar scene on the Springwater Corridor. The multi-use path linking Portland, Gresham and Boring was neither a meat market nor a ghost town.
Cyclist Jack Davis whipped a red bandana over his mouth and nose during a break in the 22-mile round trip from his home in the South Tabor neighborhood of Portland. He said he felt comfortable cycling with his mouth bare, but wanted the layer of protection when near others.
"There were more families and less serious riders flocking around. More newbies. People out walking their dogs," Davis said of his ride. "I'm using my bell more, but it's alright."
At Main City Park in downtown Gresham, Liam Hose said the hardest part of social distancing was not petting the friendly dogs he met during his walks around town. With in-person classes canceled, the Oregon State fisheries student said he was taking treks on the wooded path near his home in the Butler Creek area.
"I try my best to keep my distance from other people on some of the more narrow trails. But there are definitely some people who are not doing their best in that regard," he said, adding that children don't always understand the needs of the current situation.
Lake Oswego third-grader Nina, however, sees the rationale behind the new rules. She and her dad, Torrey, were out for a bike ride at Laurelhurst Park, both wearing masks. "I understand why we should be separated, because the coronavirus can travel and I don't want to get sick," Nina said Saturday.
Public health officials say Nina is in good company, with many Oregonians abiding by the new limitations and staying cooped up. But fresh air is free, and the temperature's rising.
The Oregon Health Authority continues to urge the public to stay the course and maintain social distancing, saying anything else could lead to a sharp spike in deaths. But it's an open question whether residents will hold out against the siren song emanating from the region's parks.
In other words? So far, so good. Now keep it up.
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