Leave the damn parks open!

What a metaphorical breath of fresh air Zeynep Tufekci (who had a great op-ed on masks pretty recently) on the importance of keeping parks open.  I keep waiting for an actual epidemiologist to say it (Tufekci is a social scientist), but the balance of evidence is so clear that your risks of disease transmission are so much lower outside than inside.  Throw in a proper 6-foot distance and you are in good shape.  Sure, its theoretically possible.  And sure, somebody near you may have a coughing and/or sneezing fit just as they walk by you in the park, but these are going to be very rare events.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Cary, NC public parks the last month and you will have to work hard to convince me that I was not safe in doing so.  In all my time, I have yet to come across another person/family group who was not clearly respectful of social distancing.  And, sure, there may occasions when public places are just too crowded (e.g., DC made the right call in closing down the Tidal Basin which was packed with cherry blossom viewers).  Okay, shut them down.  But closing non-overlycrowded public spaces as a preventative is truly counterproductive.  The default should be that public spaces are open unless there clearly is a problem (or clearly will be) with human density such that proper social distancing is not possible.  I imagine this means certain parks or certain parts of parks may need to be closed.  But save the closing for the dense spaces. It was kind of amazing to see all the people bashing this on twitter (just stay inside damnit!) with claims that people were just too dumb to social distance.  Well, in my little bubble of Cary, NC, we’re clearly not and I suspect we’re not particularly unique.  And, again, where people really cannot properly distance, okay, that’s what the closures are for.

Anyway, Tufekci:

In the short run, closing parks may seem prudent, when our hospitals are overrun and we are trying so hard to curb the spread of COVID-19. But in the medium to long run, it will turn out to be a mistake that backfires at every level. While it’s imperative that people comply with social-distancing and other guidelines to fight this pandemic, shutting down all parks and trails is unsustainable, counterproductive, and even harmful…

Exercise, the outdoors, and sunshine are essential, not just as luxuries but as ways to sustain population health and resilience. [emphases mine] That makes it important to set the right policies now. Once parks are closed, opening them back up will be harder. Authorities may dig in their heels and the issue may become more polarizing. Instead, we should start with sensible and viable policies as early as possible.

The outdoors, exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are all good for people’s immune systems and health, and not so great for viruses. There is a compelling link between exercise and a strong immune system. A lack of vitamin D, which our bodies synthesize when our skin is exposed to the sun, has long been associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory diseases. The outdoors and sunshine are such strong factors in fighting viral infections that a 2009 study of the extraordinary success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic suggested that during the next pandemic (I guess this one!) we should encourage “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible,” as a public-health measure…

Unlike poorly ventilated apartment buildings that are often very conducive to spreading infections, sunlight and natural ventilation outdoors help decrease the threat of infection. This doesn’t mean that you can bake in the sun and consider yourself sterilized, or that you should ignore social-distancing rules outside. And plain sunlight shouldn’t be confused with medical sterilization methods such as UV-C light boxes. However, there’s a good reason sunshine was used as a form of treatment and disinfectant before we had more advanced methods. From many lab and other studies, we know that “ultraviolet radiation inactivates influenza virus and other viral pathogens and that sunlight kills bacteria.” While we should not allow any park to turn into a concert-like situation, with people standing shoulder to shoulder and no space between groups, there’s no reason to panic if a few thousand people are sunning themselves in a park the size of Brockwell, which is 125 acres and can easily accommodate many thousands with sufficient distance among them…

When the efforts to “flatten the curve” start working and the number of known infections starts going down, authorities will need to be taken seriously. Things will look better but be far, far from over. If completely kept indoors with no outlet for a long time, the public may be tempted to start fully ignoring the distancing rules at the first sign of lower infection rates, like an extreme dieter who binges at a lavish open buffet. Just like healthy diets, the best pandemic interventions are sustainable, logical, and scientifically justified. If pandemic theater gets mixed up with scientifically sound practices, we will not be able to persuade people to continue with the latter.

Like so much in life, people just want stark choices and reject nuance.  The pretty clear answer is “leave most of the parks open most of the time and adjust according by usage patterns and where other evidence suggests it is wise.”  So, go to the park!  (Unless the situation warrants otherwise).

[Postscript: after I wrote this but before it went live, I learned that Paris is banning all outdoor exercise between 10am-7pm.  That sounds like foolish overkill to me (and I expect you’ll see more crowded streets between 7am-10am, but maybe it really is that bad there).]


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Leave the damn parks open!

  1. itchy says:

    Agreed. This reminds me too much of going on a crash diet. We’re not trying to eliminate every possible risk. We’re trying to find a sustainable, low-risk behavior, a plan we can realistically follow for the medium haul.

    Yes, the risk of going to a park is non-zero. It’s also very low — except in a few specific cases. But the advantage of being able to go to the park might be that it allows us to continue to distance for a longer period of time. Without it, how long until people just give up? Or choose riskier options?

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yes! When I went to the park today, and a couple time maybe even was 5 feet from other people for about a second, I thought about how China was basically locking people in their apartments except for once/week food runs and how amazingly unsustainable that would be.

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