Where the Park Trail Ends, and the Political Collision Begins

Parks are now off limits – at least most of them.

It was just a week ago that Phil Murphy defended keeping state parks and forests open – as long as social distancing was in place – in the face of the ongoing pandemic. Ball games and group picnics were
banned, but not mostly solitary activities like walking and jogging.

That sentiment, which included the DEP commissioner appearing at the daily briefing to hype an early start to fishing season, came as many counties and towns across the state were shutting their parks.

But since then, the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths have continued to increase statewide to 44,416 and 1,232 respectively.

And fueled by anecdotal evidence of “too many people gathering in too close proximity,” the governor issued an executive order closing all state and county parks as of 8 p.m. today. Municipal leaders can make their own decisions regarding local parks.

But the governor said he wants to discourage what can be termed “park shopping,” people travelling from town to town looking for an open park.

Instead, he suggested to residents that they “take a walk or bike ride in your neighborhood.”

The ease of doing that, of course, depends on your neighborhood.

The state’s Outdoor Alliance quickly condemned the idea as “ridiculous.” The alliance includes many hunters – not exactly a Murphy cheering squad.

Still, this is a big deal and partisan politics aside, a backlash would not be surprising.

It’s unrealistic and unhealthy for people to literally remain at home all day long, especially as the weather warms and the sun sets a bit later every day.

There is also a loophole in the governor’s executive order – perhaps.

The order mandates that county parks be closed, but it does not specifically say anything about trails.

Many park systems oversee hiking, biking and jogging trails that meander miles and miles through woods. These are not “parks” in the traditional sense.

Whether they have to be shut down seems debatable, according to the order. In any event, closing a five-mile long trail would be quite challenging given the fact there are often many access points.

The governor was asked today if there were any more shutdowns of daily life on the horizon.

“There’s not much left,” he said.

Some may think closing parks already is a step too far.

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