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Coronavirus is forcing a whole new social contract on Colorado’s city sidewalks and suburban open space

What’s the new social etiquette for dog-walking and trail running? Here are some answers from park managers and health officials.

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Jefferson County Open Space staff drew chalk lines around trail map kiosks, seen here at White Ranch Park, as a reminder for hikers to stay 6 feet apart. The trails are open for hiking, but visitors should wear masks and change their plans if parking lots or trailheads are crowded, park officials said. (Provided by Jefferson County Open Space)

Gov. Jared Polis’ instructions about when to wear a mask upon leaving home were pretty all-encompassing: “At all times,” he said. 

And Coloradans mostly have accepted that the governor meant we should wear masks to the grocery store, the pharmacy, to pick up dinner or while zipping through Home Depot. (Whether people do it is another matter, since it’s a recommendation, not a law.) 

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But what about outdoors? 

There’s clearly some difference of opinion on whether masks are necessary while walking a dog, going for a run or riding a bike — just take a walk or check out social media posts on the topic for proof. 

“It’s crazy to me, joggers out shirtless, sweating, huffing and puffing,” wrote one Cheesman Park resident on Nextdoor, the hyperlocal social media platform for connecting — or complaining about — your neighborhood. “At this stage it’s so inconsiderate and irresponsible.”

On the other hand, how does a runner not pass out while wearing a mask over their mouth and nose? 

Last weekend, when the Front Range reached nearly 70 degrees, multiple rock climbers were dangling at once from the same bolts at a popular multi-pitch crag in Clear Creek Canyon in Jefferson County. Washington Park and Sloan’s Lake in Denver were crowded with people picnicking and pushing baby strollers. Some trailheads in the foothills — even single-track ones, where there is no way to stay 6 feet apart without going off-trail — looked about as busy as they would on a sunny spring day in normal times. 

Except these aren’t normal times, and there’s a whole new social convention forming on city sidewalks and suburban open space. 

What’s the proper etiquette when passing someone on a pathway? Is it still cool to meet up with a cycling buddy for a morning ride? What about sitting outside to chat with a neighbor from 6 feet away? 

One Denver resident described an awkward, dog-walking encounter with a couple who nervously jumped off the pathway and into the grass, then lobbed a sarcastic comment about moving over. “I’ve seen lots of posts on here with people complaining about others not moving over so what’s the agreed upon procedure?” the Denverite asked on Nextdoor in a post titled “Who’s responsible for stepping aside?” 

It’s pretty clear Colorado has no “agreed-upon procedure,” but here are the best answers available from public health experts and park officials.

Should you wear a mask while exercising outside?

It’s not necessary unless you are on a crowded trail or sidewalk and it’s difficult to stay 6 feet away from other people. “There is little evidence the virus hangs in the air when you’re out in a park,” Denver public health officials said in an email to The Colorado Sun, relying on advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. 

“If you are exercising in sparse areas where you are unlikely to come within 6 feet from another person, wearing a mask might be unnecessary,” Denver officials said.

But bring a mask, and cover up when passing others on the trails. 

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, who leads the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, noted there is “an element of common sense” involved in mask etiquette. Ryan has been quarantining at her Eagle County home after her husband tested positive for coronavirus.

Playground equipment is marked closed at Arapaho Park in Centennial. Playgrounds and picnic areas are closed because of coronavirus, though trails and bike paths remain open. (Larry Ryckman, The Colorado Sun)

“Yes, we want you to wear a mask when you’re outside,” she said. “But there is an element of common sense of course. If you’re unable to breathe well enough when you’re going jogging and you’re not jogging in a big pack of people, for example. But we really do want to promote this as the norm. Please wear these when you’re running errands.”

Also, disinfect your mask in the washing machine or in the sink with hot soapy water after wearing it in public, health experts are advising.

Can you meet up to cycle, run or walk with friends?

According to Joint Information Center, Denver’s multi-agency center answering questions during the pandemic, the answer is yes — as long as the group is under 10 people, no one shares equipment and everyone stays at least 6 feet apart.

But people are not allowed to use playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts and picnic areas. Many, but not all, golf courses are closed, too. Group sports such as volleyball and football violate the social-distancing order. 

MORE: To curb coronavirus, what’s behind the wearing of a mask?

What about getting together to socialize, outside and socially distanced? 

This is a tough one, because there is no clear-cut answer. “While exercising is allowed under the order, socializing is not considered an essential activity,” Denver public health officials said. 

Having friends in your house is a violation, but sitting outside — especially while masked and socially distanced — is not. Still, public health officials emphasized that the spirit of the order is to limit in-person interactions. 

“Connect more with technology and less in person,” they said. 

Added Ryan, the state health department director: “In terms of hanging out with neighbors, we would recommend that if people are hanging out outside with their neighbors and interacting that they are wearing the masks even if they are 6 feet apart.”

Should you visit a state or county park right now? 

Jefferson County Open Space, with many of the most popular trails in the metro area, would prefer that you didn’t drive to a trailhead right now. 

“We prefer … that you find options closer to your home,” said Matt Robbins, community connections manager. “If you find it imperative to come to one of our parks,” he said, don’t come between the peak hours of 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and abort your plans if it looks crowded.

“If you show up to a park and the parking lot is full, you should be thinking, ‘Is this really where I should be?’” he said. “You’re going to be surrounded by a lot of people.

“Be thoughtful.”

Jefferson County rangers are out reminding people to follow social-distancing rules, and the county has chalked trailhead kiosks with 6-foot parameters so that people don’t crowd each other while trying to look at maps. The county also has stopped giving out permits to large groups (normally, permits are required for hiking groups of 15 or more and cycling groups of eight or more).

At state parks, trails and boat ramps are open, but campsites and picnic areas are not. Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer Bridget Kochel said the agency is encouraging “solo activities,” or small groups of two or three people at most, unless they are from the same family. 

Want to meet a friend for a hike? “You would have to stay locally. You would have to wear a mask. You would have to stay 6 feet away from that person. Bring hand sanitizer,” Kochel said. “There is a lot more that people have to think about before just meeting up with someone on a trail.”

Kochel wears a bandana now to walk her dog in her neighborhood. “I think of it as a way of showing respect to my community,” she said. “I’m here to be part of the solution.”

Why should you follow the rules if others aren’t?

Kochel’s point, like so many others, is that this social-distancing thing only works if most people cooperate. 

Erika Nelson-Wong — a Golden resident, Regis University biomechanics professor and a rock climber for 20 years — was “extremely frustrated” to see a crowd of climbers stacked up at a hanging belay in Jefferson County last Sunday and dangling from the same two bolts as they waited to scale the next pitch. 

Nelson-Wong was driving home from delivering supplies to her parents in Evergreen and took the scenic route through Clear Creek Canyon. 

“It almost seemed busier than a typical nice weekend day,” she said. “Every parking lot was overflowing. People were on top of each other. There was no social distancing going on.”

Nelson-Wong and her husband have climbed only a couple of times this spring and way off the beaten path because of coronavirus, far less frequently than their typical three or four times per week. She’s frustrated that other climbers aren’t staying home, too. 

“I get it,” she said. “Even in my own head, it’s a dilemma. We all want to get out and climb, and for a lot of us it’s our mental wellbeing. At first I was thinking everybody is so selfish, but it’s more denial and hope. We’d all love to pretend this is not happening.”

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