Feel free to believe this or not, but just about everyone who knows me well–friends, wives, ex’s–knows of my long history of altercations with the cops. Many of these altercations have taken place during my nocturnal rambles in local parks. Cops often claim that the parks “close,” and are willing to hassle anyone walking in the park “after hours.”* In doing so, they will often (falsely) insist that “there’s a curfew,” and ignore the blackletter of the laws they claim to be enforcing.
That said, most of my friends also know of my decades-long, obsessive crusade against the very idea of park closures. If the streets don’t close, I’ve argued, the parks shouldn’t close. Parks are safer when people are in them at all hours. Sometimes cops will insist that parks “have to” close for “safety reasons.” What they mean is that they don’t feel like getting off their asses to patrol them. But my view is that they should. I’ve fought this battle with the cops of New Jersey for a good thirty years, giving at least as good as I’ve ever gotten from them.
So it pains me to say that I actually agree with New Jersey’s closure of its state and county parks for purposes of enforcing social distancing at this stage of the pandemic. I’m led to this unpalatable conclusion by the following considerations:
- Social distancing is a requirement of justice during this pandemic.
- Those who fail to engage in social distancing are violating the rights of those nearby, whether they fail culpably or not, deliberately or not. In the mildest cases, they’re engaged in a form of epidemiological Russian roulette. In extreme cases, they’re engaged in a form of epidemiological terrorism or fascism. In either case, they ought to be dealt with accordingly. That means stopping them from doing what they’re doing.
- If left to their own devices, many people will either fail to engage in social distancing, refuse to do it, or go out of their way not to do it.
- When the parks were open in New Jersey, they failed in just the way described in (3).
A secondary consideration for closing the parks is that if people flock to the parks, they increase the odds of medical and other emergencies–traffic accidents, heart attacks, anaphylaxis, broken bones, etc. etc. But emergency medical services are at this point taxed to the limit in New Jersey. We can’t afford to increase the pressure on them. So it’s best that people lower the odds of needing emergency medical services (or other emergency services) by staying home. (I’m assuming that there are more medical emergencies if people leave home than if they stay home, and that it’s harder to attend to medical emergencies in state and county parks than within town limits.)
This view puts me at odds with just about everyone I know, including my wife, some of my best friends, just about all of my Facebook friends, and all of my enemies. My wife Alison has posted a petition on Facebook to have the parks re-opened:
We need the state parks to be able to get fresh air. There is plenty of open space in New Jersey and everyone in my county has been observing social distancing.
This is punishing everyone for the misbehavior of a few. The state parks are the ONE place we can go to and observe social/physical distancing easily.
Punish those who are offending, not those who are law-abiding.
I sympathize but don’t agree. Contrary to Alison, the closures aren’t meant to “punish” anyone. They’re preventive measures born of hard experience–of trust betrayed.
Alas, I have but three allies on my side in this battle: Governor Murphy, the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, and a student of mine who works for the Manalapan Department of Public Works, and has had the unenviable job of having to enforce social distancing norms in the Monmouth County park system. But they’re not bad allies to have: they have a fine-grained knowledge and hard-nosed realism that critics of the closures tend to lack.
Jeff Tittel of the New Jersey Sierra Club puts the argument cogently and succinctly:
There has been pushback about New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s order to close state parks. We believe this is the right thing to do, given the coronavirus health emergency. He made the order because many parks were overcrowded. People were picnicking and playing ball on playgrounds instead of practicing social distancing. There were out-of-state license plates in packed parking lots. Closing parks will help limit the spread of coronavirus and keep people safe.
During this emergency, people should stay close to home to protect themselves and their loved ones. State parks like Liberty and D&R Canal draw people from all over, but people can still walk in their neighborhoods or local parks. Closing state parks means nonessential park personnel can stay at home. Essential personnel can help the state deal with the coronavirus instead of park problems like lost hikers or vandalism.
Federal parks, including Sandy Hook, are closed. Two weeks ago the Sierra Club canceled all outings and events through June 14. Murphy is trying to limit coronavirus transmission by closing state parks, and we need to support these efforts. The parks will be there in a few months. Not visiting the parks for a few weeks now means more people will be able to enjoy the treasures of New Jersey once the health emergency is over.
Director, New Jersey Sierra Club
I basically agree with Tittel’s argument.
I agree that this is a disappointing outcome. I wish we weren’t in this situation. I live by several state and county parks and would like nothing better than to drive over and hang out in them. So yes, the situation sucks, and particularly sucks if you have kids at home and they’re driving you crazy. But if you want someone to blame for this situation, blame the irresponsible people of this state, not its politicians or the state itself. It was the people whose irresponsibility brought us to this situation, not the so-easily vilified politicians who somehow forced people to act as irresponsibly as they did.
I see a lot of butthurt on this subject by people trying to fool themselves into thinking that purely voluntary compliance with social distancing is possible or workable or credible. If you believe that people can be trusted to engage in social distancing without in some cases being made to, you’re living in a dreamworld. They were trusted at first, and they didn’t do it. The proof is there for anyone willing to open his eyes and look.
If people won’t social distance voluntarily, no matter how nicely you ask, or how many times you ask, they have to be made to do it. The least confrontational way (unfortunately) is pre-emptive action against large-scale gatherings, including ones in parks. (People going to parks is de facto a case of holding large-scale gatherings in them.)
The alternative is to open those spaces and then police them at the micro-level, confronting every violator of the norms of social distancing on a case-by-case basis– making fine legalistic distinctions on the fly, handling countless objections and excuses, dealing with countless assholes, drunks, blowhards, lunatics, and wayward teenagers. Like it or not, that’s an impossible, pointless, and demoralizing task.** All you need is one COVID positive shithead to cough or spit on one person from DPW or the PD, and you’re talking about having to bury someone who didn’t have to be there in the first place. If you think Typhoid Mary was bad, spend some time in New Jersey. We’re the people who give “Massholes” a run for their money.
It’s irrational to employ the Department of Public Works in “policing” the parks, and then, when confronting particularly defiant individuals, to force them to call the police to police the parks. Meanwhile, Public Works is already being tasked with doing roadwork or sewer work that doesn’t normally get done, and police forces are being depleted by COVID-19 itself. It’s a waste of resources to devote municipal personnel to road/sewer repair, ordinary policing, and “park duty” all at once. They have better things to do, and we have better things to have them do.
I conclude that we’re left with the status quo as the best of the bad alternatives. I’m willing to entertain other points of view, but have so far been unconvinced by the many attempts that have been made.
*Unless you’re walking a dog. Dog shit will get you a pass from law enforcement, but sitting quietly on a park bench after hours is probable cause for a citation. Yes, I’m bitter.
**It’s now becoming a fashionable in certain circles to condemn anything that might involve “blaming,” “shaming,” or even “judging” anyone who violates the norms of social distancing. In other words, the demands of politeness extend even to people who go out of their way to become disease vectors.
If “excessively judgmental” modes of persuasion and force are off the table for dealing with the recalcitrant, how exactly are we supposed to deal with them? How do you deal with the truculent or recalcitrant if you can’t even judge them truculent or recalcitrant? The default assumptions seem to be: we ignore them, we pretend that they don’t exist, or we pretend that their behavior doesn’t matter. So non-judgmentalism ends up requiring apathy or self-deception.