The difference is the police. They idle in cars every few hundred yards to enforce social distancing, empowered to fine and arrest runners for getting too close to others. The arrests happen mostly in other, poorer parks and neighborhoods—and some have gotten violent. This week, while breaking up a group on a stoop in Brooklyn, a police officer punched a man in the face. Nearby, police forcibly arrested three black men in an encounter that allegedly left one unconscious. Instead of changing course, on Friday New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would deploy police to further limit access to the outdoors—including the strips of public space that line the Hudson River. The justification is that we don’t have enough space for everyone to be out, or to linger long.
But we do have the space. The vast avenues that span the length of Manhattan are echoing in silence. New York City is home to more than 6,000 miles of streets. Much of that is barely used by cars on a typical summer weekend, when many people travel. The streets will surely be only more barren this summer. And it is possible to close them to cars and give people room to walk, run, and bike. Especially during a pandemic, simply preserving public space is a profoundly high-yield investment in physical and mental health.
Read: Keep the parks open
Like many others in New York City, I live in an apartment that’s about 250 square feet. It’s a lot harder for me to abide by the same orders as people in sprawling suburban McMansions. Our sole escape is the public spaces that typically fill beyond any ability to socially distance on warm days. When people are stuck at home, and so many other establishments are closed—our libraries, museums, gyms, pools, restaurants—the parks are already more crowded than usual. Even the Green-Wood Cemetery has threatened to close because of overcrowding by people in search of spaces to walk. The situation stands to create a viral tinderbox that will ignite New York in the heat of the summer. To propose that the solution is to limit the use of these already precious public spaces is the inverse of a solution.
The need to move around is a basic physiologic imperative. Our health deteriorates just like that of most animals when isolated and confined to tiny spaces. Even those who identify as introverts have some need to be in the presence of people, if quietly. During the coronavirus pandemic, we must do these things in the safest possible ways. We can expect to be generally safer outdoors, where air disperses our properly distanced breath. With gyms closed and basic daily physical activity ground to a halt, deliberately undertaking exercise is more important than ever—for the body and mind.
Of course, heart disease, diabetes, and depression have not ceased to exist. If anything, they should be expected to worsen with sedentary isolation and confinement—not to mention economic depression and the realities of the loss of life and community all around us.