On Tuesday, as part the first phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reopen Washington’s economy amid the coronavirus outbreak, outdoor recreation returned after a long hiatus. Hunting, fishing and boating were reintroduced, municipal golf courses began operating again, and more than 100 state parks reopened for day-use recreation only.
Shuttered since the end of March, state parks already were attracting visitors Tuesday morning, and visitors seemed to be following social-distancing measures, said Anna Gill, communications director for the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.
Though it was early in the day — and too early in the week to deliver specific numbers on how crowded the parks were — Gill said she already had encountered anecdotal reports that “the parks are busy but it’s not unmanageable, and so far, people are behaving well and following the rules.”
Jill Simmons, CEO of the Washington Trails Association (WTA), said that her organization would be gathering data from land managers and trip reports through the rest of the week to get a sense of how the reopening is going.
“I’m really curious to see what folks are reporting in terms of their experiences out on trail and how easy they felt it was to follow the rules and how much they felt others were doing their part as well,” she said. “I have to say that the majority of our community has been eager to understand what it looks like to do their part here, and to do it within the guidelines that land managers and we are providing.”
(Some of those guidelines are available on WTA’s website titled “Hiking in the Time of Coronavirus.”)
The reopening has forced some to consider even the most granular details of social distancing in the great outdoors. For example, while social distancing is easier to maintain on a hiking trail than in other settings, “the one exception” is when hikers must pass each other while traveling in different directions on the trail. In these situations, WTA is encouraging hikers to communicate verbally with each other and to locate space where they can step off the trail if necessary.
Simmons also suggested that hikers venturing out this week ease the burden on Washington’s smaller communities by limiting stops and mileage en route to trail heads. “In general, what we’re saying to folks is if you have to use more than a tank of gas to get there and back, it’s probably too far,” she said.
Those visiting state parks will encounter other changes as well. The gates may be open, but Gill said that visitors “shouldn’t expect a full-service park,” and that park restrooms and gathering areas are likely to be closed. Like Simmons, she recommended that people interested in going outdoors keep trips as local as possible, noting that most Washingtonians have a park accessible within a 90-minute drive of home.
It will be difficult to gauge rates of participation in outdoor recreation until the end of the week, outdoors experts said, and implementation remains incomplete in some cases, with lingering logistical concerns.
But things appeared to be going smoothly Tuesday morning, as Marsha Nakatani, 68, and MJ Mitoma, 67, were among the first to arrive at Jefferson Park Golf Course, which opened at 5:30 a.m.
Normally, they play with two other friends, but in compliance with new safety measures, only golfers who live in the same household can play in a threesome or foursome.
Nakatani, a golfing enthusiast who started playing 34 years ago, didn’t mind.
Spending 3½ hours in the morning sun and walking 18 holes on a public golf course with picturesque views of downtown and Mount Rainier beat walking around her Kent neighborhood for exercise.
“We couldn’t wait to get out there,” Nakatani said. “I drove past the course a couple of times when it was closed. The place was empty and looked rather sad. It’s so good to see all of these people here. It makes me happy.”
But while Nakatani and Mitoma returned to the golf course, all Seattle Parks and Recreation boat launches remained closed despite the statewide reopening of recreational fishing.
“We are still working on how we can open up the boat launches in a way that provides staffing to support social-distancing guidelines,” city spokesman Jason Kelly said.
That didn’t stop avid fisherman Andre Corr, who pulled his car into a Leschi parking lot along Lake Washington before noon Tuesday. He reached into the trunk and pulled out a fishing pole before walking out on a pier, intent on catching some bass and satisfying an urge that had been driving him nuts since the state closed recreational fishing March 25.
“I was pretty excited for this day because this is another form of therapy for me … I was here for 10-15 minutes. That’s enough time for me. Just long enough to circle around the dock and see if they’re biting,” said 53-year-old Corr, a technology broker and catch-and-release angler who lives in Beacon Hill and has been fishing these waters for more than four decades.
Corr and two other anglers on the pier didn’t have much luck Tuesday, but he insists catching fish is only half the joy. “Man, it’s so peaceful and relaxing, and you forget how much you miss something until it’s taken away from you,” he said.
While Corr was among the first outdoor recreation enthusiasts to return to their routines, he’ll likely be joined by an onslaught this weekend. With temperatures expected to be in the mid-to-high 70s, it’s likely that sun-starved Washingtonians will flock outdoors.
That will represent the true test of reopening the outdoors, said WTA’s Simmons and the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s Gill.
Gill stressed the importance of complying with social-distancing measures when that happens, because the parks’ continued operation depends on the public cooperating well beyond Tuesday’s reopening.
“We hope that it continues,” she said.