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Since its completion in 1937, the Appalachian Trail has been a place where countless Americans have gone to escape crowded cities and towns and find solitude in nature along its 2,200-mile route.
But as millions of Americans are under instructions to stay at home and practice social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic, many are ignoring the orders from state and local officials and hitting the Appalachian Trail -- and other hiking spots across the country -- in an effort to stave off cabin fever and boredom.
While public health officials say that getting fresh air and exercise is important during the contagion’s outbreak, they are also troubled by reports of trail parking lots looking like local malls on the weekend before Christmas, to record numbers of visitors to popular hiking spots.
“In a time when social distancing is necessary to minimize the spread and contraction of a dangerous virus, many have escaped to nature seeking isolation and unpopulated spaces,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy President Sandra Marra said in a statement. “On the A.T. [Appalachian Trail], however, what they’ve found are trailhead parking lots exceeding their maximum capacities, shelters full of overnight hikers, day hikers using picnic tables and privies, and group trips continuing as planned.”
She added: “Hiking the A.T. has become, in other words, the opposite of social distancing.”
In Southern California, where the region’s notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic seems to have moved off the freeways and on to the trails, officials are being forced to close parks, hand out citations and issue dire warnings to residents about the dangers and irresponsibility of crowding trails and beaches during a public health crisis.
“Normally, that would light up my heart to see tens of thousands of people congregating down in Malibu and other parts of our beautiful state,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week after reports of residents flocking to the state’s beaches and trails. “We need to practice common sense and socially distance."
He added: “If you arrive at a parking lot at a beach or park and it’s full, that suggests that social distancing won’t be possible.”
Newsom has so far closed all state parks to vehicular traffic and shut down the entrance to parking lots in state beaches and parks, but has not officially closed the trails to the public.
Other local municipalities across the Golden State, however, have taken it a step further with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announcing the closure of many popular parks in the city. Los Angeles County followed Garcetti’s move by announcing the closure of all public trails and trailheads in the country’s largest county.
“Our parks remain incredible resources for healthy activity -- but we’ve seen too many people in unsafe crowds for outdoor activities during this emergency,” Garcetti said. “Angelenos are safer at home right now. When we go out for fresh air and exercise, it should be in our own neighborhoods and at a safe distance from other people.”
The moves by Newsom and Garcetti highlight the conundrum many local officials are facing when it comes to dealing with a population antsy to get out of their homes during the pandemic. On one hand, they are advising people to get exercise and fresh air, but also maintain a safe distance from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
And while hiking trails and parks may seem like an obvious place for most people to socially isolate, they aren’t when everyone else has the same idea.
“These same crowds accessing the A.T. may not know how a simple half-day hike can spread COVID-19,” Marra said. “While hiking, they may have eaten lunch at a picnic table, taken a break in a shelter, used a privy, or shared a map or food with someone unknowingly infected with COVID-19 and carried this highly contagious virus back to their communities at the end of the day.”
As with the statewide stay-at-home order, California was the first in the nation to shut down its parks -- but it likely won't be the last.
Colorado’s Jefferson County, which includes parts of Denver and the foothills of the Rocky Mountain’s Front Range, is warning people to stay off the trails and stepping up enforcement of “physical distancing” in open spaces.
“You may be healthy,” the county sheriff’s office wrote in a post on its Facebook page. “You may think you’ll be fine. But what about the people around you? An elderly loved one? A loved one with an underlying medical condition that makes them at risk? We are asking you to physically distance yourself from others right now FOR THEM.”
Some Texas state parks have closed due to difficulties with people complying with guidelines for social distancing, while others are restricting the number of visitors. Officials in Dallas warned residents over the weekend that they could take the “drastic step” to shut down all city parks if residents don’t stop crowding them and practice social distancing.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Grisham ordered state parks to close indefinitely, effective March 16 -- leading to a reported surge of visitors in neighboring Arizona where parks remain open. And in the nation’s capital, police in Washington, D.C., have been spotted using bullhorns to warn park visitors to maintain 6 feet distance from one another.
Some national parks across the country are still open to the public -- albeit with a number of areas and facilities closed -- despite reports of seven National Park Service (NPS) workers becoming infected by the virus. The NPS is warning visitors to practice social distancing, follow federal guidelines and check individual parks’ websites for information on closures.
“The NPS is working with federal, state, and local authorities, while we as a nation respond to this public health challenge,” NPS Deputy Director David Vela said in a statement. “Park superintendents are assessing their operations now to determine how best to protect the people and their parks going forward.”