Parks – all parks – shut down
After Sonoma County’s March 17 shelter-in-place order, there was some solace because all the parks in Sonoma County were staying open for visitors, though all campgrounds were closed and all organized events were cancelled. Park staff encouraged residents to benefit from the calming effects of nature and stay physically active while at the same time protecting themselves and others from COVID-19.
Well, that didn’t last long.
After the March 21-22 weekend saw thousands swarm outside, county health officials said, “Enough.”
“Closing parks is a difficult decision, but it is the right decision at this time,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer on March 23. “Allowing crowded conditions in parks is not in our best interest during this health crisis. The best action we can take is to stay close to home and limit our outdoor time to our yards and neighborhoods.”
The closure applies to all agencies and jurisdictions operating parks and open spaces in Sonoma County, including city, county, state and federal parklands and recreational lands operated by private groups and nonprofits.
The closure order will remain in effect until further notice.
Marin, Lake, and Mendocino counties have similar closure orders.
“It’s fair to say it [March 21] might have been the busiest day in the history of Regional Parks,” said Bert Whitaker, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks. “My staff had never seen more people parked in Sonoma Valley Regional Park,” which also includes a much-used dog park.
“We hoped the parks could be an essential resource, but we can’t support the type of use we saw during the first few days of the shelter-in-place order,” said Whitaker.
Whitaker said his office received hundreds of emails and Facebook posts from people complaining about the crowds and the lack of social distancing of six feet that is recommended as a way to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Complaints ran the gamut, from overflowing parking lots to narrow trails packed with people, making it impossible in some cases to be six feet away from other hikers.
Sonoma County Regional Parks is in charge of more than 50 parks, trails and beaches. Many of these facilities exceeded overflow capacity, sometimes backing up cars into Highway 101.
Complaints on social media also started to come in March 21 about the amount of traffic heading up Adobe Canyon Road to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Kenwood.
Park director John Roney said Sugarloaf was busy, but since the campground was closed, there was lots of parking available. Some lots did fill up, said Roney.
Roney said that since Sugarloaf is large (close to 4,000 acres), social distancing was not a problem. And a lot of people bought a park pass ahead of time, which minimized the potential for people ending up in too close to each other waiting in line to pay. The restrooms were disinfected many times a day.
Over at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen, park director Matt Leffert said the park “definitely” had an increase in visitation the weekend of March 21-22.
“Our upper lot was at about 75 percent full, however, nearly all of our visitors complied with the federal Centers for Disease Control recommendations and stayed at least six feet apart. Our park allows for ample space in our parking lots and on trails in our open space. We have several options for reaching trails without having to bottleneck.” said Leffert.
Leffert said he understood county health officials’ decision to close parks. “However,” he said, “I worry that our community needs access to open space for mental and physical health – especially now. My hope is that there will be an opportunity for coordinated efforts to provide effective outreach and education so that people can safely access parks.”
Much of Jack London staff are working from home, said Leffert, leaving himself and the park’s director of operations to maintain a presence. He said they don’t have the resources, capacity or authority to enact any enforcement of the county order, though State Park officials have offered support and encouraged Leffert to reach out as needed.
“With 1,400 acres or so to cover, there’s only so much that can be done.”