When the efforts to “flatten the curve” start working and the number of known infections starts going down, authorities will need to be taken seriously. Things will look better but be far, far from over. If completely kept indoors with no outlet for a long time, the public may be tempted to start fully ignoring the distancing rules at the first sign of lower infection rates, like an extreme dieter who binges at a lavish open buffet. Just like healthy diets, the best pandemic interventions are sustainable, logical, and scientifically justified. If pandemic theater gets mixed up with scientifically sound practices, we will not be able to persuade people to continue with the latter.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t limit park attendance at all, but there are better answers than poorly planned full closures. We could, for instance, reduce congestion by regulating inflows of people over time. In large cities with limited park space, households could be assigned days for visiting, with even and odd house numbers going on different days. This has to be mostly voluntary, of course, but this is a pandemic: Most everything has to be voluntary because there is no way to get through the next 12 months by arresting everyone who wishes to get some fresh air.
Governments could make a special appeal to people who have yards to leave parks for those who do not. (Wealthier people tend to have their own yards or lots, which is another reason not to shut down parks and deny outdoor access to poorer people.) We could install number counters in parks and on trails, similar to those in parking garages or some museums, and provide sensible limits. People could make or be given six-foot-long strips of cloth to be spread in all four directions around them in the park, providing visual barriers for distance. Some bikers around the country are already using pool noodles on their bikes as such physical aids to social distancing. Walking and running trails could assign directionality so that everyone runs and walks in one direction, avoiding close encounters. Runners and walkers could even be assigned different time periods, as mixing the two seems to create more social-distancing challenges, as well as maximum numbers allowed per time period.
We can also look at increasing available space for getting fresh air and exercise. Given that many people are working from home and not traveling or driving, some streets could be closed to cars and designated for responsibly distanced walking and running. Golf clubs, schoolyards, and other private outdoor spaces could be reappropriated for exercise and fresh air for the public. Just yesterday, I walked by a baseball field with a freshly manicured lawn. If the season isn’t happening, perhaps stadiums should be opened up to other people.
These are just a few suggestions, and there could be many others. Even if health authorities close some parks temporarily while they assess and develop evidence-based policies and best practices, they should do so with transparency and a timeline or conditions under which the parks will reopen. That’s the best of all possible worlds: The authorities will preserve much-needed legitimacy, and the public will retain access to the outdoors under sensible conditions that reduce risk while promoting health, well-being, and resilience—and we will certainly need all of that to get through the next many months.