Coronavirus Diary (42): Should the Parks Be Closed in Jersey?

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:

  1. Social distancing is a requirement of justice during this pandemic.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)

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Round Valley State Park, Lebanon, New Jersey

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.

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.)

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Round Valley State Park, Lebanon, New Jersey

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.

13 thoughts on “Coronavirus Diary (42): Should the Parks Be Closed in Jersey?

  1. Thanks for putting together the argument in one place. I do think it’s a strong argument. There are risks to state parks in particular, even compared to local parks, like lost hikers or people injured far away from the main road and harder to get to.

    Just one question. In Tittel’s letter, he says “…but people can still walk in their neighborhoods or local parks”. That sounds reasonable to me. But local parks are closed in Jersey City, and walking in some neighborhoods is difficult because of crowding. Are local parks open everywhere else in New Jersey?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t have a detailed answer to your question. You’d have to check the websites of individual municipalities. I did a quick check of a few.

      Readington, where I currently live, has closed its municipal parks.

      https://www.readingtonrecreation.org/

      The reason they give is disingenuous, and could use some pushback. They cite Executive Order 118, but that order leaves the status of municipal parks open; it doesn’t order their closure. I don’t think a municipality should engage in handwaving of this kind, pretending to invoke the authority of a document that doesn’t lead to the policy they have imposed. So in this case, I think the closure policy is inappropriate. The considerations that I mentioned in my post don’t really apply in Readington: they can avoid problems here by restricting the use of Readington parks to Readington residents. That is less restrictive than a blanket closure, and solves the problem. It might solve problems elsewhere as well.

      Bloomfield, where I used to live, is a semi-urban town, and has kept “passive recreational areas” open. I don’t exactly know what that means, but I think it refers to uses of parks that don’t involve team sports.

      http://www.bloomfieldtwpnj.com/170/Parks-Recreation

      There is, for instance, a “green” at the center of town, intended for walking through or sitting in. That, I assume, would be open. Whereas baseball fields or basketball courts would not. That strikes me as the right policy. Interesting that the more urban town would be more lenient than the more rural one.

      West Orange is my hometown. The parks there are open, but not playgrounds, etc.

      https://www.westorange.org/87/Recreation

      Again, that seems right. These parks are easier to patrol than county or state parks. A patrol car could just drive by on the street and observe whether people were social distancing or not. If not, the police could stop and handle the matter.

      Montclair doesn’t seem to have a policy beyond cancellation of its recreational programs:

      https://www.montclairnjusa.org/government/departments/recreation___cultural_affairs

      Here is a statewide list:

      https://www.nj.com/coronavirus/2020/04/is-my-local-park-closed-a-full-list-of-parks-gov-murphy-just-closed-in-response-to-coronavirus.html

      I think it’s particularly unfortunate that South Mountain Reservation in West Orange/South Orange is closed. It would be quite easy to practice social distancing there, and it’s a very pleasant place to go at a time like this. But it is a county park, therefore closed. Nearby it is Stagg Field (St Cloud Ave, West Orange), which is open. That might not be a bad option to take the kids from Jersey City.

      https://www.westorange.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/17

      Also in West Orange is Ridgeway Park (or maybe Ridgeway Court Park), on Ridgeway Ave, West Orange, NJ. It is privately owned, hence not closed.

      https://www.westorange.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/Ridgeway-Park-22

      I do agree that the authorities are being somewhat excessive. It goes to something I said in my “suggestions” post:

      https://irfankhawajaphilosopher.com/2020/03/23/coronavirus-diary-13-four-suggestions/

      Suggestion (2) was intended for law enforcement: “be judicious.” We should respect their authority and try to cooperate, but they should also understand that lapses in judgment on their part will have a permanent effect on how we deal with them in the future, once the pandemic is over. They can’t mistreat people and then demand “respect.” In this as in all cases, legalities aside, a lot depends on wisely people act.

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  2. Here is another alternative: close the parking lots of parks so that only folks local to the state parks can use them. This is what Gina Raimondo, the Governor of RI, is doing and it seems to be working. She has said — in a scolding, school-marm voice — that if we cannot handle this responsibly she will have to close the parks down fully. The mayor of Providence (Jorge Elorza) has closed City parks because, for at least some of them, too many people, and too many irresponsible people, will show up (and did). I agree with them both (while recognizing that there are better solutions that could work if circumstances or relevant people were better — not our situation unfortunately).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like Raimondo’s suggestion. Making a mental note to pay more attention to her in the future. I only noticed her in passing, when the controversy arose over New Yorkers driving in to Rhode Island. But I agreed with her against Cuomo in that case,

      I’ve heard a lot of criticism lately of Michigan’s governor, Whitmer, but the people protesting her strike me as doing a lot worse than she is.

      https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/15/politics/gretchen-whitmer-operation-gridlock/index.html

      These people are just bio-terrorists. If need be, we should adjust our definitions of “terrorism” accordingly:

      https://www.politico.com/news/2020/04/15/michigan-protest-whitmer-coronavirus-188579

      “Trust us.” What reason would anyone have to trust these people with one’s life?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Unfortunately, the following fantasy of mine has been dashed: Bernie stays in and locks up enough delegates that Biden cannot take it first-ballot; Dems realize that Biden is experiencing alarming cognitive decline and also that, in order to avoid civil war, they have to push Biden out in favor of a dark-horse candidate; meanwhile Raimondo steps up her game with testing and contact tracing, making RI the first state in the nation to get the disease under control and get back to work, making her the logical dark-house candidate; she defeats Trump due to the contrast between doing a blustery-okay job (at best) versus a really stellar job with the covid (and due to being a genuinely centrist, fiscally conservative, business-friendly Democrat, a dying breed.

        Dump Biden, defeat Trump, whip covid — RAIMONDO 2020!

        Oh well. I suppose she is a dark-horse for VP, but I give Biden at best even chances for defeating Trump and less-than-even chances for pushing back against all the left-wing insanity that seems to excite Democrats so much nowadays.

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      • By the way, you should tune into one of Raimondo’s daily updates. She is not Mrs. Charisma by any means — which I like (low-flash, high-competence). But she is focused like a laser on getting people back to work, on creating a new normal that is not quite normal ASAP (though she stresses the hell out of safety and controlling the disease as a condition for this). This entirely neutralizes pro-business jumping the gun on getting back to work, etc. It is also smart democratic politics: the more time that passes with all of the restrictions, the more people will focus on how uncomfortable they are and, unless people are dying left and right, there will be a groundswell for returning to some kind of normal or quasi-normal. There is a similar neutralize-the-fools political smartness in closing only the parking lots at state parks. She also never says anything that could be construed as picking a fight with Trump. (As far as I can tell, the main political fools that Raimondo has to deal with are the leftists in her own party, who super-hate her for being pro-business, which she is, in more ways than one, but in a largely sensible way. And they probably want her to pick fights with Trump.)

        As far as I can tell, Whitmer is doing none of these politically smart things, though she is obviously smart and a pretty charismatic politician. And so she reaps a bit of the pro-liberty, pro-business whirlwind (hoople-headed non-social-distancers included).

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        • As I’ve said on Facebook, I’ve been pretty satisfied with Phil Murphy’s response to the pandemic. Given our medical situation, he faces a more urgent set of problems than Raimondo, but I think he’s acquitted himself quite well. Murphy has no natural charisma, but his demeanor is still appropriate to the situation. Same with his wife, who’s been on TV a bit. But Judith Persichilli, the state health commissioner, has done a really admirable job. I haven’t agreed with everything she’s said (I thought she was wishy-washy on the dispute between management and front-line clinicians re PPE), but on the whole, it’s hard to complain. Patrick Callahan, our superintendent of state police, has also done a good job, though like many cops, he likes to brush uncomfortable topics under the rug. I’ve been following the state’s press conferences every other day or so, and have found them very informative and well done. Put it this way: if you had to choose whether to get your information from New Jersey’s official press conferences or Reason magazine, it would be a big mistake to choose the latter.

          I was not a big fan of Andrew Cuomo before this pandemic, and thought he mishandled its early stages, but he’s staged a comeback, and redeemed himself, at least in my eyes. His charisma and bluster rubbed me the wrong way when it wasn’t being matched by appropriate action, but now that it is, I have no objection to it. There’s nothing wrong with charisma if it’s just a natural, spontaneous expression of someone’s personality. What’s objectionable is the attempt to use it to conceal one’s failings. His conferences are more enjoyable to watch than Murphy’s in terms of entertainment value, but Murphy’s are plainer and more straightforward.

          I haven’t paid detailed attention to Raimondo and Whitmer. All I want to say about Whitmer is that she has been more reasonable than her critics. I don’t think “hoopleheaded” really captures the character of the protesters in Lansing. I think these people are utterly vicious assholes.

          https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/16/michigan-whitmer-conservatives-protest/

          https://www.thedailybeast.com/michigan-conservatives-not-concerned-about-covid-19-block-ambulance-during-protest-against-social-distancing

          https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/15/835250693/michigan-stay-at-home-order-prompts-honking-traffic-jam-protest

          I got into an argument on Facebook with some head-in-the-sand blowhard who told me that he shouldn’t have to suffer for the misdeeds of others, and that the appropriate punishment for anyone who didn’t social distance was to be refused medical treatment if they fell ill. Apart from the complete obliviousness to the welfare of innocent bystanders, consider the pie-in-the-sky lack of political judgment involved. How feasible would it be to identify people who had violated social distancing orders, log their names in a database, and then, ten days later, when they exhibited symptoms requiring EMS, to have EMS connect to that database, determine that John Smith was not to be treated, and leave him to suffocate at the scene? And what’s the point? To preserve people’s right to continue to be disease vectors during a pandemic?

          For years, I’ve heard people on the right attacking left-wing protesters for their cry-baby tactics, and their temper-tantrum like attitudes. And sometimes they’ve been right. But how are they any different? Even the claims of the supposedly respectable business community strike me as obtuse. Yes, they want to re-open. Everyone wants to re-open. But what do they have to say about the possibility of subsequent outbreaks? What will they do then? They’ll just quietly retreat to postures of innocence, wait for other people to put out the fire, and then clamor once again for re-opening. How many times will we have to do this until we’re allowed to point fingers at the guilty? It was managers in the business community who pooh-poohed the idea of social distancing in the first place. Many of them haven’t been chastened by what’s happened. What would appease these people? Outright extermination? I’m not even sure that would do it. They’d just find markets elsewhere and continue with business as usual.

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  3. Thanks for putting in the effort to look up some jurisdictions. I must say, this changes my perspective a lot. I had been approaching the whole question on the assumption that local parks are closed. Since they are closed around me to avoid overcrowding, I assumed that was the case elsewhere, and that State Parks were among the few remaining parks that remained open. So I clearly had not done my homework.

    I do not see a reason why State parks per se should to be open. If they are any harder to police and manage than other parks, then it is reasonable to close them. But I do think that people should have access to some park or other for walking, fresh air, and to take their kids from time to time. It sounds like you agree with that, provided the park is easy enough to monitor.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, I’m glad we’re on the same page. I actually think it’s less a matter of doing one’s homework than of having local knowledge born of five decades of living in New Jersey. Having lived here all my life, I just have an instinct for how things tend to work around here.

      I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: I think Executive Order 107 was a basically reasonable document, but ironically, its explicit provisions are, as written, too lenient. They were written with a view to appeasing certain special interests. The problem then became that, having written an overly lenient document, the governor’s office began subtly to misrepresent its provisions. Gradually, the police began to over-enforce it. (I’ve said all this before.)

      It’s now taken for granted that the Order requires over-enforcement. Precisely because the courts are not in session, the police have an incentive to hand out tickets intended to deter offenses, not intended to identify actually dangerous offenders. This is just one of many ways in which the pandemic has identified systemic flaws in our society. They have come to treat social distancing enforcement in the same dysfunctional way that they treat traffic enforcement. Is that a reason to get rid of traffic enforcement? No. But it’s still exasperating, whether we’re talking about traffic enforcement or social distancing enforcement.

      On the other side, while the majority of people have been compliant with the Order (in many cases over-compliant with Orders that don’t even exist), some have done their best to pretend that nothing was required of them during this pandemic in the way of social distancing. These people have put everyone else in danger by their irrationality, dishing up every conceivable excuse for acting as bipedal disease vectors. Most people don’t realize how hard it is to deal with such people, especially in crowds. I’ve been collecting stories and videos of this behavior for future blog posts. But there are cases of crowds gathering, defying the police to use force against them; of people coughing and spitting on police officers, claiming to have COVID-19; and now, of aggravated assaults by people claiming to have it. Naturally, there have been the usual gun crimes as well. Eventually, someone will put 2 and 2 together and figure out that guns + claiming to have COVID19 are the perfect combination for crime.

      I belabor all that because people like Jason Brennan and Phil Magness (and their online friends) have made great efforts to lie about my views to anyone willing to listen. In their universe, I am a proponent of indiscriminate police brutality. So the view now ascribed to me is that I want the police to shoot anyone who isn’t social distancing. My actual view is that I don’t even think first offenders should necessarily get a ticket for social distancing. Depending on the case, they should be warned. Nor do I think (or have I ever said) that crowds that defy social distancing orders should be shot, or even arrested.

      What the police have to do is recognize that these people are violating the rights of others, and stop them from doing so. But we have to acknowledge the possibility, given the (low) moral character of the people who surround us, that stopping them might at some point mean shooting them. If that day ever comes, I won’t have any patience for “libertarians” who line up reflexively to condemn the police. It’s a truism, but still undeniably true: there are people in our society who absolutely deserve to be shot. Their actions are such that shooting them is the only way of dealing with them. I find it amusing that an author who’s written a book about the conditions under which one is justified in shooting police officers can find it within himself to deny this obvious truth–the truth on which his whole book is predicated. But this pandemic has, if nothing else, shown us what people are made of, not always to their credit.

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  4. The argument you have put together was strong and has changed my view on the situation in topic. As you did begin with your long history of altercations with the cops, which most were taken place in local parks; you have put that aside to agree that the parks should be closed for this set pandemic in place. Seeing the considerations, which I agreed to all especially the third one being;
    “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.”.
    Which is a strong conclusion as most people are not listening to follow the “social distancing” guidelines. If the parks are left open that is more of a red dotted area for the virus to be able to spread as vapidly as it has been, which in consideration; most were not taking the procedures as seriously as it should have been taken. Moreover, you spoke on what was once the benefits of social interactions and the many disadvantages it now has placed upon us all. Nevertheless, for the most part I agreed with your argument.

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  5. At the beginning of this pandemic, I was strongly against closing the parks as I believed people needed to get outside. I also thought that most parks were big enough to enforce/practice social distancing. Now, I agree with the statements you have made and I believe parks, even in Nebraska, should be closed. When I came home to Nebraska after school switched to online, the state had few cases and I would go to the park with my family to exercise about every day. I soon realized that adults were following social distancing rules, but children were not. Adults passing each other on a sidewalk would each cut into the grass to maintain distance while the kids are practically licking the playsets, balls, and bikes they are sharing. That is when I first became a bit irritated, not necessarily at the parks not closing, but at the parents who let their children go to the parks alone and may very well bring any disease back into their homes or to neighbors. About two weeks ago, many Nebraska state parks along with neighborhood and local parks. There were exceptions to this such as some local and neighborhood parks keeping walking/biking trails open. In a state with much lower Corona cases than New Jersey, I believe these exceptions are okay as I have not seen or heard of anyone breaking social distancing rules, and the children now play in driveways and backyards. Today, our mayor just announced the reopening of many parks, which I disagree with. I believe that closing the parks in any area that has Corona cases is a way to prevent the spread by enforcing social distancing and instead of encouraging mass gatherings with them open. I am praying that everyone stays safe and healthy during this time. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone as we are in this together.

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  6. Pingback: Coronavirus Diary (56): Parks and Privilege in New Jersey | Policy of Truth

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