CEDAR RAPIDS — Outdoor activities have become one of the last refuges during COVID-19 shutdowns, but some say the crowded biking and hiking trails have challenged social distance and group size guidance.
Erika Brighi, 34, of Marion, has made it a goal to get outside each day, taking loops on the sidewalks around her neighborhood. Last weekend, she hiked at Wildcat Den State Park near Muscatine.
“I can’t just stay tucked away at home all the time,” Brighi said. “If I stay home, I get more anxious. Getting outside clears my head.”
Especially as the weather warms, outdoor destinations — such as Cedar Lake, Ellis Park and Palisades-Kepler State Park — have drawn large crowds.
Officials maintain getting outdoors is a good way for people to get exercise and mental health relief they need to combat coronavirus stress and isolation. But they are urging people to use common sense.
Greg Buelow, a spokesman for Cedar Rapids Police Department, said police are patrolling throughout the city, including around parks like Cedar Lake and Ellis Park, and the vast majority of citizens are complaint with the governor’s proclamation limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people through the end of April.
Police have issued warnings at times they see problems but have not encountered circumstances where people needed additional warnings or a citation to gain compliance, he said.
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“The groups that have been together have been family members or have been couples or parents with children walking together,” he said. “Experts have said that exercise is important to people’s mental health, so those that go outside to exercise should maintain proper social distancing.”
When Brighi was at Wildcat, she said she noticed a cluster of people around an old mill and opted for remote trails. When she encountered someone else, she stayed back at crossings or got off the trail and gave them plenty of space to pass.
But not everyone takes social distancing as seriously when they’re hiking or walking in her neighborhood, she has noticed.
“I felt like I was doing it, but other people weren’t,” she said. “It can be hard to avoid people.”
The new ethos still is settling in.
Some have noticed groups congregating at bike trailheads or on sides of trails, groups walking side-by-side taking up entire trails or getting scolded when walking too close on a hiking trail. Others are finding solutions.
Johnson County Supervisor Janelle Rettig, a cyclist, is avoiding the more popular trail networks in favor of streets, which have less traffic these days, adding that option may not be ideal for those riding with children.
Others have reported groups waiting for their turn to climb on a rock formation near Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City,
Jean Wiedenheft, director of land stewardship at Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, said while the center doesn’t have crowd counts, visits are up.
AVOIDING tHE PACK
Indian Creek has four parking lots and miles of trails, so social distancing has not been an issue and people are being respectful, she said. With so many people working from home, the typical rush of dog walks and hiking after work has been spread throughout the day, she said.
She visited Palisades-Kepler, near Mount Vernon, over the weekend and noticed the most popular trail to a gazebo overlook was busy, so she picked the Cool Hollow Trail and had it to herself.
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“Pick a part of the park you’ve never been to before,” Wiedenheft said. “Everyone should be out on our trails right now. There’s no better time to be out here, and nature provides solace.”
No Limits Planned
Elected officials in Cedar Rapids say they aren’t looking at limiting cycling and hiking — local city playgrounds are closed, though — but people should use common sense and follow social distancing guidelines.
City Council member Marty Hoeger noted in California officials have closed many trails and recreation activities. He doesn’t want to see that happen in Iowa, although he noted, as the weather improves, the issue of navigating outdoor recreation space will grow.
“It’s our last refuge,” Hoeger said. “People need to be smart. We can’t ask police and sheriffs to all of a sudden be the public distance babysitter.”
Council member Scott Olson said he is determined not to become a homebody, regularly getting out on walks. He takes responsibility to leave room for others.
“It’s a fine line of how do we keep sane without totally shutting the world down,” he said. “We can’t keep people from going outside.”
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