As the COVID-19 crisis has ravaged America, New Jersey faces an unprecedented health emergency that has prompted leaders to enact restrictions on everyday life that have distressed residents. Following is a responsible plan to reopen over 1 million acres of public recreation space.
- Outdoor activity is a key component of maintaining morale at a time when our state desperately needs to keep our spirits up.
- The intrinsic right to harvest one’s own food cannot continue to be marginalized and criminalized when grocery stores are a hotbed of contagion.
- Emergent studies suggest that sunshine and outdoor activity are key to fighting this public health threat.
- In re-opening state and county parks and forests, the state will be reopening over a million acres of public recreation that will help people maintain distance from one another.
- Closing parks was an overreaction that actually harms public health, adding to stressors and exacerbating conditions such as depression and anxiety and caused an uptick in “underground” gatherings such as so-called “coronavirus parties”.
- Education: an uninformed populous is bound to be noncompliant. Without proper education on the “how’s” and “why’s” of outdoor social distancing, citizens are playing a game of which they are ignorant of the rules.
- Enforcement: strict but reasonable enforcement is the key to both encouraging voluntary compliance and effective enforcement. Law enforcement should focus on egregious violators (such as group gatherings) and high traffic areas to remind citizens of rules in real-time.
- Sufficient resources should be made available to park facilities to implement these recommendations, including PPE for law enforcement, reallocating signage and advertising budgets toward emergent efforts, and other supplies and resources.
- Similar to efforts by the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife, an outdoor and digital advertising plan should be implemented to educate the public about social distancing rules at parks – focusing on not just the “how” but the “why”.
- A robust outdoor signage program focused on points-of-entry, common traffic pinch points, parking areas and boat ramps.
- Outdoor signs should stipulate rules such as the CDC’s “6-foot-guideline” and suggestions for tackling social distancing in trails and parking lot areas.
- Digital advertisements should use a multimedia mix of display and video advertising to reach park goers.
- In coordination with local public health and government officials, evaluate the incidence and trends for COVID-19 in the areas and mitigate the spread through control of park usage by out-of-state residents.
- Evaluate the necessity of enforcement actions. Law enforcement should prioritize large group gatherings and high traffic areas by stationing personnel at key points (parking lots, picnic areas, etc) to ensure compliance with social distancing and leave alone solitary recreators and cohabitating families that are in compliance with guidelines.
- Recommended safe activities for outdoor recreation include hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, kayaking, wildlife watching, wildlife photography and in-household picnicking.
- Recommended activities to prohibit include group sports, group gatherings, the usage of high-touch surfaces (like picnic tables, an example of why education is key, park goers could be directed to picnic with their own supplies, such as blankets).
- In response to the Governor’s concerns on out-of-state park usage, consider establishing residents-only zones that would screen license-plates, etc. for out-of-state park users. Enforcement personnel would routinely screen plates for New Jersey residents, and would politely ask non-residents to consider recreation options in their own state.
- As before the park shutdown, care should be taken to keep closed park facilities with high-touch surfaces; such as bathrooms, nature centers, basketball and tennis courts, gazebos, and other structures.
- Sanitation protocols by park staff should remain in place to prevent spread by casual violators.
- Consider hand-sanitizer stations or other options to promote public health.
- Consider educating the public about mask or eyeglass usage to prevent infection by droplets.