Public health experts: Parks are a safer bet in the age of coronavirus

Big parks are great for social distancing and to reduce stress and anxiety produced by the coronavirus pandemic.

Tony Yoon fishes at Meadow Lake in FDR Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Tony Yoon fishes at Meadow Lake in FDR Park. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Updated 10:45 a.m. Tuesday


Tony Yoon needed to go fishing.

As the coronavirus outbreak intensifies, so do the 45-year-old shipping manager’s nerves.

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He’s constantly checking the news to hear the latest recommendations to keep his family safe — it’s all a little overwhelming.

“It’s hard to avoid contact with door handles all the time —  you can only do so much,” he said.

Which is why Yoon found himself Thursday at FDR Park in South Philadelphia. Throwing a fishing rod out into the park’s vast lake, he can finally get out of his head.

“This is one of the places I can be left alone, you know,” Yoon said. “There’s no real major crowds, and at least there’s a breeze if someone is close to you. Hopefully, the breeze will go the other way.”

Nature is a great place for social distancing. It’s easy in a big park, like FDR or Fairmount Park, to keep six feet apart from other people, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest. And there’s not a lot of surfaces touched by a lot of people in a forest.

As schools close and the city cancels public events and recommends people avoid busy places, public health experts say parks are a safer option when looking for recreation.

“There’s much less risk if you’re in outdoor spaces. First of all, because you’re probably less likely to be very close to other people, said Dr. James Buehler, a clinical professor at Drexel University and former Philadelphia health commissioner with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration.

“It really appears to take a fairly close, and often sustained, exposure to someone in an indoor setting where there’s the greatest likelihood of transmitting the virus,” Buehler said.

Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said larger city parks — Fairmount, Cobbs Creek, Pennypack, the Wissahickon, or the riverfront trails — are good places to avoid crowds and get some peace of mind while getting out of the house.

City parks remain open on a regular schedule and the Parks and Rec facilities and bathrooms will also stay open to allow people to wash their hands often.

“When public events are being canceled and when museums and other sites are being closed, there is plenty of open space in Philadelphia for people to get out and enjoy,” Ott Lovell said.

The change of scenery and pace can “hopefully bring them some relaxation and peace of mind to bring down their stress levels, just a bit,” the commissioner said.

Veronika Ferris visits FDR Park in South Philadelphia with her 1-year-old son. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Terry Brady, from the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources, said people won’t be touching shoulders with anyone in any of the larger state parks either.

“Parks would be an incredible break from groups and certainly — no offense — from the media’s constant flow of information,” Brady said.  “It’s a beautiful time of the year right now, we have a lot of different flowers and shrubs and trees beginning to bloom. And it’s very peaceful, you can walk for maybe a couple of miles and not even see another biker or hiker.”

On Monday, Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Cindy Adams Dunn announced that all facilities at state park and forests will be closed for 14 days effective March 17 to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However the public will still be able to access trails, lakes, forests, roads, and parking areas for passive and dispersed recreation, such as hiking.

“People will have access to state-owned open spaces to continue to enjoy the healthful benefits of recreation and being outdoors,” Dunn said. “However, as part of Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts, all of the buildings at state parks and forests including the park and forest offices, and all restrooms will be closed, and all events and public educational programs are canceled.

“We encourage practicing social distancing while enjoying open spaces including avoiding groups and crowds, and visitors should use the bathroom before they leave home,” Dunn said.

All state park events across the rest of the state are also canceled through April 30.

French Creek State Park in Berks County remains open.

South Philly resident Veronika Ferris said she’s worried about the virus. She has a 1-year-old and said she’ll have to get creative and find different places to take him to play.

“I wouldn’t have my kid play in the jungle gyms,” she said. “It’s going to be a different space now. Like parks.”

On Thursday, she took her 1-year-old to the tennis courts at FDR park.

“He’s going to play today for the first time,” Ferris said, laughing.

State parks near Philadelphia area:
Benjamin Rush, Northeast Philadelphia
Ridley Creek, Delaware County
White Clay Creek Preserve, Chester County
Marsh Creek, Chester County
French Creek, Berks County
Nolde Forest Environmental Education Center, Berks County
Delaware Canal, Bucks County
Ralph Stover, Bucks County
Nockamixon, Bucks County
Tyler, Bucks County
Neshaminy, Bucks County

National Parks near Philadelphia 

Valley Forge
Lower Delaware National Wild and Scenic River

This article has been updated to reflect the planned Ridley Creek State Park closure.

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