If you want to drive to a major Seattle park, you will not be able to park there.
And if you are looking forward to a walk on a Washington State ocean beach, forget it. The beaches are off limits.
And at many parks you will be hectored and bullied in way that is contradictory to the values of a free society.
Because some public officials believe, with virtually no evidence or basis in science, that these restrictions on outdoor areas are promoting public safety. These politicians and bureaucrats may mean well, but, in reality, they are harming many of those they wish to assist. They are also working against the most progressive values of our community, taking actions that are inconsistent with the essential principles of our democracy.
There is minimal risk of coronavirus spread outdoors. That is science.
This is not speculation or wishful thinking but based on the scientific literature, observational evidence, and fact-based logic. I reviewed some of the literature in my April 18th blog post and there has been more recent research during the past few months. For example, recent lab studies carried out by the U.S. Army’s high-level biosecurity laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md. (see below) found that the virus survived for only 2 minutes on a surface and as an aerosol droplet for only 90 seconds during the summer. And noted in my earlier blog, there is no documented example of COVID transmission in the outside air and there are many reasons for this, including the effects of solar ultraviolet radiation, the higher relative humidity, and the huge potential for dispersion (and thus low concentrations) in the vast quantity of outside air, enhanced by outdoor wind.
Lifetime of COVID-19 based on the latest research by the U.S. Army’s high-level biosecurity laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md
Furthermore, exposure to the sun results in the production of Vitamin-D, which increasing number of studies have shown enhances our immune system in its battle to fight off the virus. Outdoor exercise also strengthens the immune system and there are substantial psychological benefits to visiting parks and natural areas, which also enhances our ability to fight off disease. And parks provide huge areas for social distancing.
So, if elected officials and government agencies are concerned about the impact of coronavirus on the population, they should make it a priority to ensure that citizens have easy access to outdoor areas. Unfortunately, the opposite has been the case.
Seattle Parks and Parking
Take the Seattle’s Parks and Recreation Department. During Easter weekend, they closed all the big Seattle parks, forcing residents into smaller, crowded neighborhood parks. And over the past months Seattle has closed the parking lots of the big parks, including Magnuson, Green Lake, Discovery, Lincoln, and Seward.
The result of the Seattle Park’s parking blockade has been a great reduced reduction in park usage, with all the attendant negative health impacts. Those who wish to drive to their favorite park are forced to park far away, often in crowded situations, and frequently must walk close together on limited (and crowded) access paths.
Far fewer elderly and mobility-impaired people have been unable to enjoy the parks as result of the parking ban. To note one concerning case, last week I viewed an elderly couple walking haltingly towards Magnuson Park, at least 1/4 mile away (see picture). They were having a hard time. In the past, some mobility-impaired folks would drive to the park and just stay in their cars, enjoying the wonderful view and fresh air. Or perhaps put out a few lawn chairs. No longer.
An elderly couple had a long walk to get to the park. A very long walk.
And the demographics of Magnuson Park visitors (and visitors to other major parks) have changed radically. During normal times, there was a wonderful multicultural mix. Lower-income folks who lived in apartments could drive to the park to enjoy a wide expanse of grass and water. Many would bring chairs, tables, barbecues, and more, making an entire of day of it.
No longer. Picnicking and barbecuing are forbidden. Hundreds of signs tell people to “KEEP IT MOVING” and the limited number of people in the park no longer represent the diversity of our community. To put it more bluntly, the folks living near our large waterfront parks (e.g., Magnuson, Discovery, Carkeek, etc.) tend to be far richer and less diverse than the “interior” of the city. The big parks are the “neighborhood” parks of the well-to-do.
So, we have a major American city that has put into place measures that reduces park access for lower income, more heavily minority communities, the mobility impaired, and the elderly, and leaves the best parks for higher income folks. Does this sound consistent with “progressive” values? Maddeningly, such restrictions are totally inconsistent with scientific knowledge about the virus. They are arbitrary and wrong.
And folks, it is even worse than that. Recently, the Parks and Recreation Department decided to kick folks out of the large parks at 8 PM (see sign). Here are some science facts for them to consider: sunset today is 8:37 PM and soon will be after 9 PM. It is quite light for at least a half-hour after sunset.
So, no sunset views for Seattle park goers at Carkeek, Golden Gardens, Lincoln or Discovery parks, to name only a few. No enjoyment of the sublime views and pleasant conditions at the end of the day. And their sign was very deceptive, making one think the park was closed. The red sign is not very subtle: Seattle Parks Department does not want you there.
Washington State Beaches Are Closed
Closing of the State beaches (and the wonderful State parks along the Columbia Gorge), has to be one of the strangest and most counterproductive decisions made by government officials of Washington State in a long time.
The beaches offer vast areas for social distancing and lots of wind, meaning that dilution of the virus would be extreme. Plus, high humidity, which is proven to inhibit the spread of the virus.
Based on the unphysical and unscientific supposition that a few people might be too close on the beaches and spread the virus (which is virtually impossible in that environment), the State is preventing EVERYONE from enjoying the beaches. Such silly measures were also put in place in California. Just irrational decision-making. The Serious Policy Issue: Decision Making in A Democracy and Collective Punishment
But just as problematic as the rejection of science and the misguided restrictions of Seattle Parks and the State of Washington is how these decisions are being made and the demeaning ways the messages are being delivered.
Look at the signs place around Seattle Parks. Warning that crowded parks will lead to closed parks! If too many people, desperately in need to get out into the fresh air, visit the parks, Seattle Parks and Recreation will close the parks!
And the signs make it clear, that they will be watching to ensure compliance. Other signs warn to keep moving! (see below), or note that picnicking is forbidden. Don’t even think about stopping to enjoy the view or enjoy a snack on a blanket or bench.
The State parks have similar threats.
What we have here is the threat of collective punishment if a few people “break the rules” created by some misguided elected officials or city/state bureaucrats. Everyone will suffer if a few kids gather too closely or some of the “unwoken” have an illicit picnic.
This kind of communal punishment is exactly the favored approach of totalitarian regimes, such as in Maoist China, the Soviet Union, and North Korea. Our Parks Department even encourages you to report on those defying the ban and provide telephone numbers and email addresses (206 684-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org.). Reporting on one’s neighbor and friends has always been a potent tool of totalitarian regimes, as is scaring the population to make the more pliable, which is going on now in a major way.
An activity forbidden in a Seattle Park
There are dangers to our democratic institutions in the way the coronavirus situation is being handled, both regarding the parks and otherwise.
Some elected official and government agencies are taking on enormous powers to restrain movement, to enforce lockdowns, to forbid gatherings, to close parks, and even restrict the “peaceful assembly” protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. One could imagine that such enormous powers could be abused by an individual wishing to gain control of a society. I am NOT suggesting that any of current leaders have such intent, but this is a potentially dangerous precedent. Personally, I would be far more comfortable if such draconian measures were required to be directly approved by our state legislators or city councils. Such democratic checks on executive power does exist in some states.
Huge play fields are closed
The Bottom Line: End Restrictions on Our Parks and Beaches
The decisions to close beaches and parks, or restrict access to them, has been misguided. There is no evidence of a threat of outdoor transmission in parks and natural areas, even when folks are gathered in activities such as picnicking and barbecuing. There is strong scientific evidence for the lack of threat and powerful fact-based arguments that outdoor air is safe (e.g., dispersion by winds, UV radiation killing virus, higher humidity). The policies in Seattle and Washington State have particularly hurt low-income, elderly, and mobility-restricted populations, and are contradictory to the progressive policies favored by many. The restrictions have been wielded in a heavy-handed, undemocratic way with totalitarian overtones, and have been conceived and effected in a way contradictory to those of a democratic society.
In short, the restrictions on our beaches and parks should be removed immediately.
If you agree, perhaps you might express your views to those constraining park access. Some contact information is found below:
Phone: 206 684-4075
Washington State Parks