UPDATE: On Wednesday, Palo Alto announced plans to close parking lots near three of the city's open spaces, Foothills Park, Arastradero Preserve and the Baylands, starting Friday. Read the story here.
With more people flocking to the Baylands and Foothills Park for fresh air and exercise, Palo Alto officials are preparing new restrictions to limit crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.
City Manager Ed Shikada said the city, much like other parts of the state, has seen a surge in visitors to open space preserves in recent days. As a result, staff planned to impose "access limitations" that started Tuesday morning, including shutting down bathrooms and restricting the use of water fountains at Foothills Park, Shikada told the council Monday.
Shikada's action follows even stricter measures in other jurisdictions, where state and Santa Clara County leaders have taken steps to reduce crowding in popular parks and nature preserves. On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom closed parking lots at parks and beaches throughout the state, including some in San Mateo and Marin counties, in a bid to limit crowds. All parks in Marin County, including city, county state, federal destinations such as Mount Tamalpais and Point Reyes National Seashore, are now closed.
Palo Alto hasn't closed off access to nature preserves to date, though officials indicated Monday that they may go that route if crowds don't ease. The city has already shut down local playgrounds and tennis courts and has previously closed libraries and community centers.
Given all the facility closures, nature preserves present an obvious and attractive opportunity for residents to exercise and look for recreational opportunities. The county's March 16 order to shelter at home allows residents to go outside for exercise, provided they stay at least 6 feet away from others. While that "social distance" guideline hasn't always been followed, Councilwoman Liz Kniss said that she was "very impressed" by the behavior she witnessed during her stroll on the Stanford Dish earlier in the day.
Kniss said people walking the loop were reinforcing to one other the need to stay at least 6 feet away.
"Perhaps it's not always appreciated, but I noticed frequently people were saying, 'You're not 6 feet apart. Go single file.' While I think it does offend some people, I noticed people really comply and pretty quickly," Kniss said.
But council members also expressed concerns about the crowds in peak nature areas. Mayor Adrian Fine observed that the Baylands were "pretty swamped" over the weekend.
"Obviously, we do want recreational opportunities and fresh air for our residents in the community. … But how do we make that decision on potentially closing parks?" Fine asked.
Shikada said the city's current philosophy calls for reducing access, rather than closing open spaces entirely. But he called it an "incremental step," and suggested that the city could go further if the crowds persist.
"If that's unsuccessful in terms of managing the crowd, then closure would presumably be the next step, unless we can come up with any strategies in between," Shikada said.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois wondered if the city can relax some rules for tennis, a sport that has distancing built in. But Shikada and Kristen O'Kane, director of the Community Services Department, noted that tennis and pickleball matches are considered "gatherings" under the county's shelter-at-home order, and thus banned at least until April 7.
There is also some concern, from the public health perspective, about people touching the same tennis ball or the same equipment during the pandemic, O'Kane said.
"With respect to having activity in parks, it's really difficult to maintain that social distancing in any situation," O'Kane said. "So we're trying to focus on virtual programming right now."
While the city has been quick to shutter facilities to comply with recent state and county orders, it has not been aggressive about enforcing the order, opting for an educational approach. When Kniss asked Police Chief Robert Jonsen whether the city will follow the lead of places like San Jose, where police are planning to enforce the stay-at-home order, Jonsen indicated that his department isn't there yet.
Palo Alto officers have responded to some of the violation complaints by deploying officers. When possible, the department has tried to mitigate these concerns over the phone. To date, the department has been "strictly trying to educate residents and community members" about social distancing.
"We don't want to get into the enforcement of social distancing," Jonsen said. "But if people don't start complying, we may have to at some point."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.