The Phoenix City Council voted on park changes today intended to keep people safe from the coronavirus. But trails and golf will remain open, as Governor Doug Ducey's executive order requires.
In a 7-2 vote, the council formalized changes it had begun on Friday, including limiting parking at certain parks to keep crowds to a minimum, and closing amenities like volleyball courts and baseball fields. It also laid down special restrictions for Easter weekend, the biggest day of the year for family use of the city's flatland parks.
Park picnics are canceled for both April 11 and 12, and the parks will be open only for residents to access walking paths and green spaces. Parking lots will be closed, except to permitted disabled drivers.
For the duration of the state's pandemic emergency, expected to last beyond April, the council majority decided to move forward with closing the ramadas at all "flatland" parks, and to allow only one rider per golf cart, with exceptions for two family members, at city golf courses. Park restrooms will remain open.
Council members Jim Waring and Sal DiCiccio provided the "no" votes.
The prospect of closing hiking trails at Phoenix mountain and desert parks caused a spat between council members earlier this week, and drew several impassioned responses at today's meeting from hikers who argued that the healthiest option was to keep trails open.
A ranger who called in to the meeting, in contrast, said there's no way anything short of closing the trails could keep park users and staff safe.
Council members said on Monday they would discuss trail closures with input from city staff and take a vote on it, leading DiCiccio to issue a press release and statements on social media opposing the move.
The city later took the motion to close the trails off today's vote. As Cris Meyer, city attorney, pointed out to council members on Thursday, Ducey's March 23 mandate prevents the total closure of trails, parks, and golf courses — meaning it was never really an option, legally speaking. The order prevents cities or counties from imposing restrictions more stringent than the state's on "essential" businesses and activities, and includes as essential "any outdoor recreation area, park, site, or trail that provides opportunities for outdoor recreation with social distancing such as walking, hiking, and biking."
Ducey has received criticism in the last two weeks for moving too slowly as the pandemic arrived and for not pushing greater restrictions. Not only does the order keep trails open, but it also calls businesses such as tattoo parlors and nail salons essential. National parks and numerous city, county, or state trails have been closed completely in some states. Other states, like Oregon, have taken a lighter approach to trails, noting the mental health and exercise benefits of walking, hiking, and biking. Yet with Arizona's COVID-19 infections supposed to peak later in the month, Ducey could still take trails off the essential list.
"The governor is completely wrong on a lot of the essentials," Council Member Carlos Garcia said at the meeting in arguing for the closure of all parks and city trails. "We should close down the golf courses as well."
Garcia added that the city is putting the health of city workers at risk, saying "we can simply do what's right and tell people to stay home."
Council Member Jim Waring said he sees "pretty much 100 percent compliance with social distancing" in his district, whether people are walking on sidewalks or trails. He worried that rangers would still have to deal with people breaking the rules if the parks and trails were closed.
Waring, Mayor Kate Gallego, and most other council members said they'd prefer to see trails stay open, for now. So did the majority of callers who called into the public comment portion of the meeting.
One resident said he'd lost 40 pounds by following his doctor's advice to hike regularly, and said hiking boosts the immune system. A father of two said "wealthier people might have yards" but other residents need to use the parks to "maintain sanity."
"Being able to be outside — I'm sorry for getting emotional — is very important for my emotional state," resident Amanda Davis told the council, her voice wavering. "So please do not close the trails."
Erickson described other steps her department has taken to keep people safe at city golf courses. The city has put out "cup liners" to protect people when they pick up their ball, removed "other items people could possibly touch," and is enforcing spacing at driving ranges.
Some restrictions are in place at mountain parks: The Cholla Trail trailhead is closed at Camelback Mountain, and no parking is available near Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park. Rangers will "control access" to parking at South Mountain Park’s Pima Canyon trailhead, Camelback's Echo Canyon trailhead, and at Piestewa Peak, though the parking lots are still open as usual.
But the ranger who called in, Brian Krauss, said he was "absolutely" in favor of closing trails. Sure, people may be able to disperse once on a mountain or desert trail, but accessing the trails means "massive points of concentration," he said. Park visitation has been off the charts lately, he said. In March 2019, the official count at South Mountain Park's main gate was 11,000 vehicles. Last month, more than 38,000 vehicles came in, he said.
The city asks that all park users adhere to the following guidelines:
* Refrain from using parks or trails if they are exhibiting symptoms
* Follow CDC guidance on personal hygiene prior to and during use of parks or trails
* Prepare for limited access to public restrooms or water fountains
* While on trails, warn other users of their presence as they pass, and step aside to let others pass
* Follow CDC guidance on the recommended size of social gatherings including outdoor picnicking, pick-up sports and other group hangouts, and maintain proper physical distance at all times
* Observe CDC minimum recommended social distancing of six feet from other individuals at all times. If this is not possible, users should find an alternate location or depart that space
* Consult their local and state ordinances and guidelines for the most up-to-date recommendations on park and trail use