Wednesday, April 8, saw probably the nicest weather since the coronavirus shutdown began: sunny and topping 70 degrees. At about 5:30 p.m. that day, the Three Rivers Heritage Trail was packed, at least for the mile or so along the Allegheny River between Heinz Field and the Veterans’ Bridge.
It was, in other words, not the place and time for social distancing. Pedestrians, dog-walkers, joggers, cyclists, and stroller-pushers thronged in both directions. The recommended 6 feet of distancing was difficult to maintain, almost impossible in spots where the trail narrowed. And virtually no one was wearing a mask.
That sort of scene gives officials pause during a pandemic. Less than two weeks earlier, on March 26, Chicago officials had taken the extraordinary step of closing 18 miles of trail along its popular lakefront, along with the adjacent parks and other city trails, because of concerns about crowding. It had to be a worry elsewhere, too: According to data from the nationally based Rails to Trails Conservancy, trail usage at 31 sites it monitors boomed in the first six weeks of the shutdown, to 2.5 times the totals during the same time period in 2019.
In Pittsburgh, the 24 miles of the Three Rivers Heritage Trail (which runs along the banks of all three rivers) is overseen by Friends of the Riverfront. In March, the group posted “COVID-19 Safety Precautions” signs warning users to “share the trail,” maintain 6 feet of distancing, and “stay home if you are not feeling well.” The nonprofit was also putting out the word on social media. Last week, it installed a fresh round of signs, posted more prominently and bearing one simple message: “Maintain Social Distance on this trail. 6 feet +”.
“We’re also asking that trail users go to less frequently used sections of the trail, and if the trail looks crowded, that they should go elsewhere or come back at another time,” said executive director Kelsey Ripper. (Stretches of the trail along the Allegheny upriver of the 16th Street Bridge, and on the Ohio downriver of Rivers Casino usually fit this description.)
Moreover, cyclists should switch to city streets if they feel safe doing so, says Ripper, noting that decreased automobile traffic makes the roads more agreeable for bikers. And all trail users should follow Governor Wolf’s recommendation to wear a facemask any time they leave home, she said.
But no one was enforcing the guidelines, and it was unclear how much impact the message was having. This past Saturday, George Molnar, of Millvale, visited the Heritage Trail for a walk with his partner and his dog. Like most trail users, neither human was masked, and Molnar said he was unconcerned about contracting COVID-19.
“I really don’t worry about it that much,” he said, sitting on some steps near the Roberto Clemente Bridge. “I’m not going to let it ruin my life.”
Molnar, 40, visits the trail weekly, often for a bike ride. He said he gives others physical distance if their body language suggests he should stay away. But, he adds, “from what you read, most of the young people [who contract the virus] are fine, mostly it’s the older people.”
(For the record, more than 40 percent of people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Allegheny County as of April 28 have been under 50, and while the median age of those who’ve died from it is 84, the youngest person to die was 42. And medical experts say wearing a facemask is less about protecting yourself than it is about protecting others from your own airborne respiratory particles.)
Others on the trail were more cautious. Stephanie Christ, of Irwin, was sitting on the fountain near PNC Park. Though her mask was down at the moment, she said, “We were actually worried [about distancing], but I think it’s actually been a lot better than what we expected. Everyone seems to be keeping to themselves. We haven’t seen any issues.”
Spring trail traffic in Pittsburgh has likely been suppressed by weather that has been wetter and cooler than usual for April.
Officials are reluctant to close trails, which, like parks, are giving people otherwise cooped up at home a relatively safe way to exercise and recreate. Ripper also notes that some essential workers might use the trails to commute to work, on foot or by bicycle.
The Rails to Trails Conservancy has suggested that cities alleviate trail crowding by closing some city streets to motorized traffic. Depending on how long the lockdown continues, perhaps it’s a move more cities will consider as warmer weather draws more people to the trails.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:40 a.m. on 4/30/20 to clarify the state’s recommendations on wearing a mask outside of home.]