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Seattle worried about proximity of people running, cycling on trails

The Green Lake loop is popular with joggers, cyclists, and pedestrians -- but the City of Seattle worries there isn't enough room on it to properly social distance. (Nicole Jennings/KIRO Radio)

With orders to stay at home and most businesses closed, one of the few places people are allowed to go is outside — and, thanks to the arrival of spring weather, many locals are taking advantage of that fact by running, walking, and cycling through local parks and trails.

But now officials are worried those public green spaces could also be dangerous.

The City of Seattle went so far as to close 15 of its most popular parks over the weekend, including Green Lake, Golden Gardens, Discovery Park, Alki Beach, Seward Park, and Cal Anderson Park.

Seattle Parks and Recreation Superintendent Jesus Aguirre said the city was being preemptive in light of a beautiful weather forecast for the weekend.

On sunny days over the past month, the city has noticed cooped-up Seattleites coming out to parks in droves, and some people have tried to get away with a barbecue or kids’ birthday party.

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But Aguirre said for the most part, people are following the rules. Now, the city is worried even the rule-followers could be in danger.

“Even folks who are trying to socially distance and physically separate just can’t,” he said. “If you think about Green Lake, and the running trail, it’s really hard, folks are just running around each other, trying, but the situation is just really hard to control.”

Recent Belgian-Dutch findings that have been spreading online show that people breathing heavily while running or cycling emit particles that stay in the air, called a slip-stream. This slip-stream acts as a kind of cloud that any people behind the jogger or cyclist can then pass through, enabling one runner on a path to give another runner the virus simply by panting germs into the air.

The researchers said that rather than 6 feet apart, joggers and cyclists should stay at least 30 feet apart.

“Those are the types of things that worry us, … if you’re able to keep that distance, maybe it’s OK, but I know when I run, I tend to huff and puff,” Aguirre said.

Some, however, are skeptical of the Belgian-Dutch research. During a tele-conference held between the University of Washington and Washington State University on coronavirus misinformation on Thursday, Professor Jevin West, director of UW’s Center for an Informed Public, said the research had not been thoroughly vetted.

“People are now worried, ‘Should they be running, should they not, did you see the science study?'” he said. “The problem was, the science study hadn’t even been written. There wasn’t even a pre-print paper — pre-prints are before peer review. And people were making decisions based on science that didn’t exist.”

Throughout the rest of the coronavirus pandemic, the City of Seattle hopes to not have to close parks again, but it is looking at taking certain measures on trails like the Green Lake loop to keep people separated. Aguirre said this could mean reconfiguring trails or blocking certain portions. The city is not closing the Burke-Gilman trail due to its use by bike commuters, but the trail is being monitored.

People behaving dangerously at Seattle parks can be reported on the department’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages.

The hundreds of smaller, less-well-known parks in the city will still be open this weekend, so Aguirre encourages everyone to get out and exercise — just do so close to home at a spot less crowded than Green Lake or Seward Park.

“If you want to go for a run, run in your neighborhood,” he said. “Stay away from these big parks. We don’t want to be part of the problem, we want to be part of the solution.”

The City of Kirkland announced Friday that it would leave its popular parks and trails, such as Marina Park, Juanita Beach Park, and the Cross-Kirkland Corridor, open for the time being. However, police and Kirkland Parks and Community Services Department crew members will be at some of these locations educating people about how to keep safe distances while working out.

“Folks are at home all day, some people don’t have backyards, some people don’t have space within their complexes to be able to go and experience the outdoors and get fresh air, get exercise,” said Kellie Stickney, communications manager for the City of Kirkland. “And we really believe that it is important to both the physical health of the public and the mental health of the public to keep these areas open for safe exercise and outdoors time.”

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