Philadelphia’s Wissahickon Valley Park is seeing crowds the size it normally draws in peak summer season as people cooped up by coronavirus protective measures seek relief outdoors.
But those who work to keep the park functioning say the crush is not just a strain on the park — it’s dangerous to visitors.
“Ever since the social distancing order has gone into place, it’s been incredibly crowded in the park … even on the rainy days,” said Ruffian Tittmann, executive director of Friends of the Wissahickon, a nonprofit that works with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation to oversee the park.
Tittmann cautioned that visitors should practice safe distancing, consider cutting back trips to the park, and keep their dogs on leashes.
Gov. Tom Wolf issued stay-at-home orders for Philadelphia and six other counties on March 23, but extended the orders for all 67 Pennsylvania counties as of April 1. The orders state that “engaging in outdoor activity, such as walking, hiking or running if they maintain social distancing” is allowed.
In recent years, Wissahickon Valley Park has experienced an explosion of visitors that has strained staff as people discover through social media the park’s 1,800 acres of paths, bike trails, forest, and rushing water.
Wissahickon Valley Park isn’t the only green space receiving swarms of people seeking to escape pandemic isolation.
Gail Farmer, executive director of Wissahickon Trails, a separate nonprofit organization focused on the creek as it runs through Montgomery County, wrote in The Inquirer that her staff has seen increases in use along 24 miles of trails and 12 nature preserves, as well as overflowing parking lots.
On social media, commenters noted reports of heavy use of other outdoor areas in the region, including Batsto Village in Wharton State Forest in the New Jersey Pinelands, where cars were lined up bumper to bumper.
But Wissahickon is one of the bigger draws in the city, regularly pulling in visitors from other counties and states for its natural attractions such as Devil’s Pool and its vast network of hiking and biking trails.
Tittmann, who is working from home and not going to the park, said she’s gotten reports that while many visitors are trying to keep a safe distance from others, too many others are not. According to a city survey, more than two-thirds of Philadelphians say they are taking social distancing guidelines seriously.
“We’re seeing use more typical of a hot July weekend than early April,” Tittmann said. “We love people to love the Wissahickon, but we also want people to stay safe. … So we want to get the message out there that there’s no cease-fire for the virus in the Wissahickon. It’s everywhere.”
Tittmann pointed to recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear a face covering, as the coronavirus can spread through people interacting in close proximity by coughing or sneezing. But not everyone at the park is complying.
The CDC also says maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other people is an important way to slow the spread of the virus. But that’s hard to do on a narrow trail crowded with people — and pets. Tittmann said too many are not leashing their dogs.
Tittmann said most of the park’s 10 parking lots were full last weekend. But there is no accurate count because trail counters are not being used right now.
“We really want people to do social distancing," she said. "So maybe if you went to the park yesterday, take off today. Or just step outside, and stay in your neighborhood if that’s possible.”
Tittmann said she understands the need for people to get out.
“But it’s not business as usual, it’s not run with your usual running club, and meet up with groups of friends," she said. "It’s get in and get out and stick to social distancing.”
Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, which owns the park, said it is doing its best to keep up with the demand for use of all outdoor spaces.
“This crisis reveals just how vital our urban forests are to the health of our city and its residents,” Kathryn Ott Lovell, commissioner of Philadelphia Parks & Recreation, said in a statement.