Park-goers flock to the Valley Green Inn on Forbidden Drive on Tuesday, April 7, despite the statewide stay-at-home order.  While parks are still open during the coronavirus pandemic, the Friends of the Wissahickon is urging the public to exercise caution and limit their visits as much as possible.  (Photo by Sam Newhouse)

by Sam Newhouse

While Philadelphia’s non-essential indoor and gathering spaces are shuttered due to concerns about the novel coronavirus, the city’s parks remain open. And some people are coping with the stress of the pandemic by visiting the trails of the Wissahickon. Actually, a lot of people.

Recent Wissahickon Park attendance is “comparable with peak weekends in the summer,” said Friends of the Wissahickon (FOW) executive director Ruffian Tittmann, based on parking lot counts and observations by volunteers. That’s raising concerns that park-goers may unintentionally be increasing the risk of further spread of the coronavirus.

“Naturally, because folks are home and have time on their hands and also have a lot of stress in their lives, they are looking to get out in the park and experience nature and get that relief. We understand that,” Tittmann said. “But there’s no cease-fire on the virus in the Wissahickon. The parks are open. The city’s keeping them open. But we should all be mindful right now of how we’re using it.”

Tittmann said that while FOW supports people continuing to visit the park as needed, she is concerned that visitors may not realize that with, as most other public spaces are closed, more people than ever are visiting the parks.

FOW has also received a spike in reports of dogs off-leash on the trail, which Tittmann said is also a concern. Besides being against the law, encounters between dogs can involuntarily bring strangers into close contact, further violating social distancing guidelines.

“We want people while they’re searching for relief from this incredibly stressful situation to really still remember the social distancing – and keep your dog on a leash,” Tittmann said.

Social Distancing

While six-feet-apart social distancing, masks and gloves have become the norm around Philadelphia. Many people seem less concerned with the risk of inhaling coronavirus particles while outdoors in nature, both in the Wissahickon, and at parks around the state and country, which have almost universally reported skyrocketing attendance.

In the Blue Bell Hill section of the Wissahickon last Sunday, the trails had steady foot-traffic. All the park-goers were observing social distancing, to the extent that is possible on a six-foot-wide trail, and many were wearing masks. But there were also some large groups that did not appear to be observing distancing guidelines at all.

“We’re only supposed to be with people in our household,” Tittmann said. “It’s really about thinking through a few steps ahead with all of our actions, and we just really want people to be safe.”

Volunteer Events Canceled

Tittmann noted that due to the virus, FOW and park volunteers can’t gather to clean up, hold stewardship days or habitat restoration events. The FOW’s upcoming volunteer days and eagerly anticipated April Earth Day events, including a planned clean-up day while all of Lincoln Drive was set to be shut down, have all been cancelled.

For now, any cleanup in the Wissahickon is falling to city Parks Department workers, who are already stretched thin, not considering the high-intensity use the park has been seeing recently, and Tittmann is concerned that these city employees may end up exposed to .

“Think about is it ‘I want to go,’ or ‘I need to go?'” Tittmann suggested, who mentioned she has been taking walks outside her home and in her yard. “If you’re lucky enough to have some green space in your neighborhood or near your home, maybe there’s someone who doesn’t have any green space at all, and if I’m not at the park, someone else can get out there.”

Tittmann urged park-goers to, per government guidelines, avoid congregating with people outside their household, to not plan daylong trips or picnics in the Wissahickon, to keep visits to the park brief, and consider visiting other, less popular parks to help alleviate crowding.

“Mental health is very important, so if you need to go, go,” Tittmann said. “Come in, get that relief you need in nature, and then be safe and get home.”

Alternatives to the Wissahickon

Yes, there are other parks that give an experience not totally dissimilar to our beloved Wissahickon. Please note that these sites may also be prone to overcrowding, and visitors should always be mindful that Gov. Wolf has issued a blanket Stay-At-Home order to all residents not involved in essential activities.

  • Awbury Arboretum – The grounds around the Cope House remain open during the coronavirus, with social distancing, and have scenic trails for walking.  1 Awbury Rd, Philadelphia, PA 19138
  • West River Drive, aka MLK Drive, has been closed to vehicular traffic 24/7 and offers a wide-open scenic walk along the Schuylkill.
  • Pennypack Park in Northeast Philadelphia and West Fairmount Park have expansive trails that some visitors have reported are mostly empty, but of course, they might become crowded at a moment’s notice.

Virtual Wissahickon

For those who can’t leave home to visit any park, FOW has opened the “Virtual Valley” online, with educational videos and resources, homeschooling materials, live-streamed events, art, games, trivia and other online experiences to give folks at home a taste of the Wissahickon.

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