Social Distancing

We All Want to Get Outside, But Are Our Parks Getting Too Crowded?

We need to stay six feet apart while exercising outdoors, too, y'all.

By Gwendolyn Knapp March 18, 2020

The Seymour Lieberman Trails back in normal times.

As an avid runner who usually spends Sundays cranking out a long run at Memorial Park, I knew this past weekend would be my last attempt to set foot on the popular Seymour Lieberman Trail for a while. 

Six feet. That’s the recommended space to safely social distance yourself, including while exercising outdoors. It’s also not really possible to do that on the Seymour Lieberman, which, at least in one small section that bottlenecks along Memorial Drive, is barely that wide across. Plus, the park appears more popular than ever, likely because it’s one of the only places we can go right now in Houston.

Granted, there are other places to run in Memorial, so I returned yesterday evening around 6:45 p.m., to try and clock five miles around the picnic area—typically populated by cyclists and rando smokers; yesterday the area was crowded with people out on bikes—and also on one creepy trail that runs along the train tracks near the west side of the "Ho Chi Minh" woods. There, a woman walked while hack-coughing. A family of five sprawled across the dirt walkway so you couldn’t pass safely, all because the father had wandered into the grass to lift up a large rock from the side of the trail. Maybe he was trying to kill a snake—or the entire population.

Everyone is heading outdoors because we’re cooped up. That’s both good news and bad for us. Exercise is necessary during this scary time, and being outdoors has been proven time and again to help counteract our anxiety, stress, depression, cabin fever, even ADHD. You got a symptom? Chances are, nature can help. But having this much foot traffic in the park? No bueno for that necessary six feet of social distancing.

Yesterday, I saw groups of people playing volleyball. I saw clusters of mountain bikers, hikers, and families galore. These group sizes were all under the newly recommended CDC guidelines to limit gatherings to 10 people, but it was still...creepy.   

And keeping six feet away from people out there was a study in zigzagging. Had a gator been chasing me, it would not have caught up. Nobody seemed to care much as they ran toward me or biked past me, just a foot away from making contact. The final straw was when two oblivious people on phones actually crossed the street directly into my path—rude and reckless. I left more stressed than I’d arrived.

It’s an absolute zoo out here, I texted to my friends. It’s like the new Galleria.

I love Memorial Park, but for the sake of public health, I'm just going to run and walk around Montrose, where I live, for the foreseeable future. Maybe I'll go down to Buffalo Bayou, where things have seemed a bit more spread out. Or maybe not. 

On the drive home from Memorial Park, I noticed people had gathered to watch the evening flight of the Waugh bats. Many people had spread out, but closer to the bridge a crowd had still formed close together, because apparently seeing those bats at Buffalo Bayou was more important than doing everything we possibly can to stem the spread of this dangerous virus. 

That's not a good look, Houston. We're going to get through this, but we must do it six feet apart.

And so I have some suggestions for all of us to consider as this pandemic continues to unfold. Look, we all deserve to get outside during this. We are all adapting to the changing situation, and it's possible regulations could keep us indoors-only in the future. But can we consider:

  1. Rethinking what time we’re heading to our popular parks. We all need exercise, but we don't all have to do it at the same time of day. 
  2. Making the six-feet of social distancing a priority. There's a reason this has been mandated, guys. 
  3. Remembering that this isn't just about your own safety. The better we all are, the better chance we'll have of getting through this quickly. And then we can all run and clog the trails again and only risk annoying each other. 
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