An electronic sign near St. Petersburg, Florida, after beaches in that region were closed over the weekend due to large crowds gathering there. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times)

An electronic sign near St. Petersburg, Florida, after beaches in that region were closed over the weekend due to large crowds gathering there. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times)

Outdoor crowds test limits of social distancing as leaders weigh ‘very strong’ emergency powers to fight coronavirus

By Mike Reicher

The Seattle Times

Forced to work from home, with kids’ toys crowding the living room and restaurants drawing shut, many in Seattle and beyond have turned to the outdoors — too many, it turns out.

Police over the weekend took to loudspeakers and blared reminders for Seattle park-goers to keep their distance from each other.

The announcements raised the specter of legal consequences and stricter government measures that could come to the region if state and local leaders order more businesses to close and residents to shelter in place. While Gov. Jay Inslee has avoided such restrictions as government leaders worldwide work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, other officials are beginning to take action on their own.

Their approaches vary, but have the same goal: for people to stay home.

King County, Seattle and other cities closed portions of their parks on Friday. Everett’s mayor directed residents to stay home. And some governments are taking more targeted measures, like the Pacific County health officer who closed beaches to razor clam digging.

Meanwhile, the Washington State Department of Health announced Sunday that there were 269 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, bringing the state total to 1,996 cases, including 95 deaths. The bulk of cases remain in King County, which has seen 1,040 people fall ill and 75 die.

Depending on local law, cities and counties can have sweeping emergency powers, said University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer. Local government officials can impose curfews, shutter businesses, close all streets and take other actions allowed in their charter or municipal codes. Municipalities can act to protect public health and safety, Spitzer said, as long as they don’t directly conflict with state law.

“Yes, we’re in a democracy,” he said, “which means we elect the people who then get these very strong powers in emergency situations.”

In Seattle, for instance, the mayor can close all businesses until further notice, order geographic or citywide curfews, and close all streets, parks, beaches, amusement areas and public buildings. Violations would be punishable by a fine of up to $500 or by up to 180 days in jail, or both, according to the municipal code. Other cities have similar laws on the books.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin decided to issue a stay-home directive after she saw families gathering at local playgrounds and parks. The city is “directing the people of Everett to do what they can,” though the directive is “not a mandate.”

While local officials can issue orders stronger than the state government’s, they can’t be weaker. So a city or a county could go further than Inslee’s current prohibition on gatherings of 50 or more people, by limiting them to 10 people for example, but municipal officials could not allow larger groups.

Threats of trespassing

On a sunny spring afternoon Saturday a Seattle police officer warned parkgoers who had gathered on ballfields at Cal Anderson Park. They were less than 6 feet from each other, against social distancing recommendations.

“Your current conduct is placing yourself and your fellow Seattleites in danger,” the officer said over a loudspeaker. “Lack of voluntary compliance could result in a full closure of all parks, which will eventually result in trespasses, and possibly criminal prosecution.”

At the moment, police “are having a presence in parks,” Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin said. “If there is any kind of large- or medium-size gathering they’ll be called in to disperse that,” referring to the governor’s current order.

King County and the city of Seattle closed all playgrounds and sports courts over the weekend. The cities of Sammamish, Bellevue, Lynnwood and Kirkland also closed playgrounds and courts.

Schulkin said she was not aware of any officer issuing citations or taking other specific enforcement actions for social distancing or accessing closed areas of parks. “The farthest we’ve gotten is asking people,” she said, “and they’ve complied.”

Cherry trees irresistible

It’s not just urban parks drawing people outside. People have flocked to see sights like Snoqualmie Falls and the annual cherry blossoms on the University of Washington campus.

Despite university officials’ suggestions that fans watch online from home, they’ve shown up to see the bloom in person. Last week university police posted signs and assigned bike patrols around the cherry trees, to warn people against standing too close to each other.

For the most part, “people have not been congregating, but when they have, they’ve been reminded,” said University of Washington Police Maj. Steve Rittereiser. “They’re responding in a reasonable way. They’re taking the advice of the officers.”

Parks officials say that outdoor activity is still encouraged, unless it happens to be at a popular destination.

“If you’re just with your family — your little quarantine pod — and there are a lot of people there, we’d like it if you could make a different choice,” said Schulkin from Seattle Parks and Recreation. She recommended trails in wilderness areas or less crowded options out of the city’s 485 parks.

Officials from the Mayor’s Office and the Parks Department are evaluating each day how people are reacting to the closures, Schulkin said, and whether they need to close all parks. Meanwhile, Washington State Parks officials announced Sunday they were closing campgrounds throughout the state until April 30.

 

Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times 
                                An electronic sign near St. Petersburg, Florida, after beaches in that region were closed over the weekend due to large crowds gathering there.

Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times An electronic sign near St. Petersburg, Florida, after beaches in that region were closed over the weekend due to large crowds gathering there.