Let me begin by saying that I stand with our state legislators and public health leaders in their efforts to soften the blow that SARS-CoV2 (the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19) is about to deal Oregonians. I get reducing contact rates to slow the spread of infection; I get the desperate race to bolster our hospitals’ capacity to care for an influx of COVID-19 patients needing intensive care. However, closing our state parks and natural areas such as McDonald Forest in Corvallis is unnecessary and counterproductive. We can do better than this.
Last weekend, Oregonians flocked to beaches and forests, causing congestion at parking areas that was incompatible with social distancing. The response was to close the natural areas in question. It was a cheap, easy and rapid fix. Fine.
But let's unpack this a little. People heading to beaches and woods were, for the most part, trying to do the right thing. They didn’t crowd into malls and downtowns. They didn’t go to city parks and playgrounds, where social distancing was going to be difficult. They didn’t succumb to a defeatist mindset, despite the fact that many are facing grave economic uncertainties, and fearing for their health and their loved ones. Instead, they decided to be proactive and head outside to keep themselves and their families healthy and happy during these challenging times. The only problem? Lots of us had the same idea. Responding by closing our parks is a slap in the face for Oregonians trying to make good health choices.
But it’s worse than that: Preventing people from using some natural areas is going to squeeze them more tightly into the remaining spaces. Density promotes the spread of infection. Let's bear in mind, too, that healthy habits like regular exercise and time outdoors help prevent many of the chronic conditions underlying ill health in our communities. In the context of the current pandemic, let's consider, in particular, that it is co-morbidities such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension that increase the risk of severe illness and death from COVID. The same healthy habits also reduce stress and help maintain mental and spiritual stability. Perhaps most importantly, access to natural areas has the potential to promote social cohesion at this time, because outdoor spaces make it possible to walk, run and play with family or friends at a safe distance. If we are to act collectively to stem the tide of infection, we need to feel connected, now more than ever.
Our policies during the pandemic need to support, not prevent, physical activity, time outdoors and social cohesion. They must enable us, as a society, to maintain effective distancing for a long haul, almost certainly months, not weeks. Closing our natural areas fails Oregonians. It disempowers us from managing our physical, mental and spiritual health, eroding our capacity to act, together, to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV2 for the sake of our most vulnerable.
We can do better than this. There are other options than closures to ensure social distancing outdoors. Available parking already limits the number of people accessing a given beach or trailhead at the same time. Preventing crowding during peak visitation times is thus a matter of enforcing rules that limit parking to available spots and don't allow it to overflow to adjacent streets. This could be achieved by having parking guards turn people away when the lot is full, and clearly marking areas that are off-limits. Sure, it takes some person-power. Well, we’ve got person-power. I would be willing to bet that we can organize volunteers to get the job done: this is an opportunity to do something concrete to help fellow Oregonians stay healthy, and to ensure that we maintain public support for the social distancing measures that will stave off the virus while we build our health care capacity. I’d certainly be happy to contribute some of my time to keep our beaches and forests accessible to all. Who wouldn’t?!
Anna Jolles is a professor at Oregon State University, where she teaches epidemiology and investigates how infectious diseases spread and persist in animal populations. She is raising three children on a small farm in Corvallis with her husband. Running the trails of Willamette Park, Bald Hill or MacDonald Forest is her daily practice to try to maintain fitness, sanity and kindness to those around her.
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