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Social Distancing In New England's Great Outdoors: 'We're All In This Together'

New England governors are urging people to stay home as much as possible to avoid the spread of COVID-19, while keeping open state trails, forests and some beaches so there are places to exercise. Among the caveats to playing outside, social distancing is a must — and it's not always happening.

“I’ve been walking every day, way more than usual, just because it’s the only thing that gets you out of the house,” said Jan Hackman on a bike path where it straddles the Connecticut River between Hadley and Northampton, Massachusetts.

In the middle of the week, Hackman would ususally be in an operating room at Hartford Hospital, where she’s an anesthesiologist for elective surgeries. But since beginning what she calls her “COVID sabbatical,” — a temporary layoff — she walks about four or five miles a day.

As for social distancing, “I move out of the way,” Hackman said. “I see clumps of people together and I just assume they’re a household. So if you’re a household, I don’t think you need to be social distancing.” 

When out with friends, Hackman said they manage distancing depending on where they walk.

“If it’s someplace you can be six feet apart abreast, I think that’s the easiest, conversationally. But then you'll be frequently passing other people, so you have to single-file,” she said.

Hackman said she's never felt at risk, and that strangers are being much nicer than usual.

“Everybody is saying hello to each other,” she said. “It’s there's a certain, you know, 'we’re all in this together' mentality.”

Jan Hackman on a bike path that crosses the Connecticut River between Northampton and Hadley, Massachusetts.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR
Jan Hackman on a bike path that crosses the Connecticut River between Northampton and Hadley, Massachusetts.

That’s not what it felt like a couple Saturdays ago at Crane Beach on the North Shore of Boston, said Barbara Erickson, president of the Trustees of Reservations, which owns much of the ocean property. 

“On a particular Saturday, we had 4,000 visitors in one day,” Erickson said. “And this was a cold March day. And so when you think about the parking lot, visitor facilities, in terms of bathrooms, just people on the beach itself – it was impossible to keep six feet distance.” 

The Trustees maintain 25,000 acres of public open land around the state. In eastern Massachusetts, beginning around early March, Erickson described some of the crowds as “crushing.” Staff weren’t safe, nor — in a pandemic — was the public. 

“We spent a lot of time consulting with our peers, specifically the National Park Service, and some of the National Trusts around the world,” Erickson said. “Europe, being a few to several weeks ahead of us, was very helpful in understanding some of the issues they were having. “

When Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced only essential businesses would be allowed to stay open, Erickson said it made sense to close visitor centers and trails at their 118 sites — although not all are marked as closed.

Erickson said the Trustees may reopen some of their properties. 

“Since that order,” Erickson said, “I think there’s perhaps a different viewpoint on how the governor and how the state think about the openness of recreational spaces for the health of our residents — a different definition than we had interpreted it to be on whether essential or non-essential.”

Mass Audubon, which protects more than 38,000 acres in the state, also closed its properties. The organization’s Jeff Collins said while they were thrilled to see how many people came out in early March, they grew increasingly concerned about whether visitors and staff were safe.

“So reflecting on, sort of, two weekends of nice weather, with a lot of people coming to several of our properties, and the advisories that were coming out just a week ago, we thought that the best course of action at the time was to limit access on our properties,” Collins said.

The Trustees of Reservations have said people can walk on trails near where they live, as long as it's not gated off. But closed means closed for Mass Audubon properties, for now. 

In western Massachusetts, at least, there is plenty of open space to be found. Kestrel Land Trust is keeping open its properties in Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin counties.

Kestrel's director Kristin DeBoer said, overall, the Pioneer Valley is fortunate.

“We have the river running through the heart of the valley, and that provides a sense of open space,” DeBoer said. “The river, and the Mt. Holyoke range, and the Mt. Tom range are the natural connectors.”

As far as our behavior outside, DeBoer said we do need to change.

“Being out on a trail is a way to build community while keeping socially distant,” De Boer said. “We’re all realizing that being with friends and family is vital to our lives, too, in this time when we have to be alone.”

Just waving to a neighbor or making a new friend across the trail — someone you’ve never seen before, but who shares a love of that space, DeBoer said — that’s a really inspiring thing right now.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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