East Bay park district will keep its parks open during shelter in place; attendance is high

The East Bay’s 73 parks and 1,250 miles of trails in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties will remain open to the public during the state’s shelter in place order, the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors announced on Thursday.

Alameda County beatGov. Gavin Newsom’s executive order calls for a three-week shelter in place in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus. An exemption, though, allows residents to have brief respites in outdoor places, such as taking a therapeutic walk down the street, hiking, and exercise.

But East Bay Regional Park District rangers and employees urged caution against the keeping the recreational areas open to the public, arguing it may put employees and residents at risk.

While the parks will remain open, restrooms and water fountains will not be in operation. Garbage service will also be limited. “We just don’t have the ability to maintain those and the safety of our staff,” said Robert Doyle, general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District.

At the core of the district’s philosophy is to serve the public, and the public needs us. They need to be outside. They need to be with their families.-Robert Doyle, East Bay Regional Park District general manager

But Doyle and many park district directors acknowledged the tension between offering stressed out residents a moment of fresh air and contemplation at its park with the realities that park-goers, if not careful, could spread and contract the coronavirus while doing so.

“I am torn about the idea of keeping parks open or not,” East Bay Regional Park District Board President Ellen Corbett said. “The reality is parks are almost impossible to close and I have heard from so many people who want to be outdoors during these difficult times.”

Doyle urged residents to adhere to the Newsom shelter in place order, but added, “At the core of the district’s philosophy is to serve the public, and the public needs us. They need to be outside. They need to be with their families. If you need a break, Doyle said, “the East Bay Regional Park District will be there for you.”

East Bay parks will remain open, but with a skeletal crew of employees, but there is good news for workers. They will receive paid leave, the park district announced. All wages and benefits will be paid to employees,  Doyle said. “It is the right thing to do. We’ve already budgeted for it,” Corbett added.

But while rangers and park employees voiced concern over the move, the public had inundated some park district directors with what one called a “torrent” of complaints in opposition to the board’s decision last Monday to temporarily closed all of its parks.

It remains a concern for the park district that some residents are failing to exhibit social distancing protocols while at the park. In addition, they acknowledged it is physically difficult for social distancing at some parks because narrow pathways. The Botanic Gardens in Berkeley’s Tilden Park was cited as one park where social distancing is inherent difficult to achieve.

Increased traffic at some parks has also hindered social distancing measures. Park Director Beverly Lane, who represents Walnut Creek and surrounding areas in Contra Costa County, reported a “highway of people going down the Iron Horse Trail” in her district.

Attendance at East Bay regional parks today was high, district staff reported on Thursday. Garin Park in Hayward was packed, as was the Diablo Foothills. Tilden Park was filled by 10 a.m. Brushy Peak in Livermore was 70 percent full.

If further reports of large gatherings forming at its parks are obtained, the park district will proceed with further closures, Doyle said.

On Thursday, park district directors also declared an local emergency and established a task force that includes employee labor unions and management. The task force will be instructed to work collaboratively for working through issues that arise from its response to the coronavirus outbreak.