Charlie L. Harper III

Zilker Park was nearly empty early this week. (Charlie L. Harper III)

At a time when bars, restaurants and most shops have closed, public parks are one of the few destinations still available to Austinites—at least until this weekend, when the city, the county and the state will close their parks, trails, greenbelts and preserves for the Easter holiday.

At the city level, this rule—in place from Thursday at sunset to Monday at sunrise—will be enforced with signage, gate closures and regular patrols by park rangers. At a press conference on Wednesday, Austin Mayor Steve Adler indicated that a longer-term closure may lie ahead.


"I'll tell you another place that I'm concerned about, are the people bunching up together on the trails when they're running or the people in the parks," he said. "Quite frankly, I think we need to consider closing them down at the end of [the holiday weekend] as well so that we really do show the discipline that we need to show as a community."

The decision to temporarily close parks arrived alongside updated social distancing metrics. While data suggests Travis County residents have reduced nonessential activities by 64%, this rate drops to 19% when it comes to parks, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said Tuesday.

Both rates are far short of the 90% reduction in nonhousehold contact researchers estimate is required to flatten the curve in Austin.

Traffic counters posted on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail show that last Sunday, 5,252 people crossed the Roberta Crenshaw Bridge, which runs under MoPac and over Lady Bird Lake, according to data obtained from the nonprofit Trail Foundation.

This count is slightly higher than the number of people who visited the trail last spring, and overall usage has not decreased since the mayor issued a stay-at-home order on March 24.

"We have tried to encourage people, if they can't walk to the trail, to maybe exercise in their own neighborhoods, and instead of getting in their car and driving [downtown] to minimize the number of people who are out there every day," Trail Foundation CEO Heidi Anderson said. "And the only reason for that, really, is because the trail, when it's overcrowded, it just can't accommodate a six-foot space between every trail user."

While some public green spaces may reopen on Monday morning, many city facilities have been closed indefinitely to prevent the spread of coronavirus cases. These include recreation centers, museums, campsites, basketball courts, playgrounds and golf courses.

Last Friday, the parks and recreation department announced it had also closed Barking Springs, tweeting: "Park users were gathering in groups & not allowing enough physical distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

Allison Watkins, chief strategy officer for the Austin Parks Foundation, said the organization is working to move as much of its programming online and to encourage people to seek fresh air at their neighborhood parks and in their own backyards, rather than flock to more popular destinations.

"The most important thing that we want to get across is [that] the social distancing guidelines… apply to parks as well," Watkins said, adding that it is important for people to have a safe space in which to exercise or get a "mental health break."

To this end, APF has taken its kids club, the Little Hummingbird Society, virtual, offering free indoor activity kits and games for parents to print out at home. The nonprofit has also adapted its popular Movies in the Parks series, pointing Austinites to streaming services where they can find classic films for viewing on their couches.

In the meantime, organizations like APF and the Trail Foundation—as well as Waterloo Greenway, which is building a 1.5-mile network of parks along Waller Creek between Lady Bird Lake and 15th Street—continue their work keeping the city's green spaces safe and maintained.

"We know the minute that we are all free to move about again that people are going to be flocking back to the trail and hungry and thirsty for that experience again," Anderson said.

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