Professor explains perks, precautions for visiting parks during the pandemic

Person with a backpack walking along trail with mountains in the background.

Photo by Bob Wick of the Bureau of Land Management

Faculty member Nina Roberts, an expert on natural resources and culture, shares insights

With both summer and pandemic shelter-in-place orders in full swing, many people are itching to head outdoors but aren’t sure how to do so safely. San Francisco State University Professor of Recreation, Parks and Tourism Nina Roberts says going to parks can be a great way to cure cabin fever — as long as it’s done responsibly. We turned to her for insights into the advantages and risks of visiting parks during the pandemic.

Why are parks important during the pandemic?

Spending time outdoors in parks is vital during this time because the fact is, nature heals! The natural environment provides visitors with a multitude of benefits that can help physically, mentally, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually. For example, many people have found it emotionally draining to adjust their lives to the pandemic, especially being cooped up indoors while adhering to shelter-in-place orders. Spending time in nature can reduce some of that stress and improve mental health.

Other benefits of spending time outdoors: It can help develop sharper thinking, enhance creativity, improve your ability to concentrate, boost your immune system, provide better vision and enhance short-term memory. Some studies even show there are possible anti-cancer effects and that spending time in parks can reduce the risk of early death in many people.

What safety measures do you take when you visit parks? Are there certain things you pack?

COVID-19 research shows there’s less risk of transmission when in outdoor spaces. However, enhanced safety like wearing a mask and physical distancing is still vital. In this case, I always wear my mask when hiking and give as much space — at least six feet — to people who pass by me along trails. I also visit parks only with one or two other close friends or family members and never congregate with large groups of people outdoors. Also, remember to bring hand sanitizer, and if you’re feeling sick, stay home.

Pandemic aside, I always make sure I have proper footwear, enough water, sunglasses and sunscreen. I also never forget to pack my favorite snacks! I recommend wearing different layers of clothing, which is especially important in the Bay Area, which is known for its microclimates. I also carry a small first aid kit regardless if I go on an urban adventure or venture further out in remote places.

What’s your favorite park in San Francisco, and what do you love about it?

I have many favorite parks in this city, and one is Fort Funston. That area is managed by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and provides a level of extraordinary simplicity — yet it’s surrounded by a unique ecosystem. The shrubs are healthy and vibrant, and the forested areas provide shade and a habitat for wildlife. The views are also absolutely stunning, and I love the coastal trails. The ocean feeds my soul, and whether I seek solitude or want to enjoy a leisurely hike and laugh with friends, that park provides a level of magic like no other.

How can people find out which parks are open and what the restrictions there might be?

Currently, one of the best sites for more local information is Together Bay Area. San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department thankfully kept its parks open while many state and national parks were closed. I am also happy to see that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention established guidelines for visiting parks and recreation facilities.

More parks may have opened, but different facilities may not be available to visitors. For example, many vehicle parking areas and playgrounds for children are still closed, but we’re starting to see some restrooms open again. It is important for park visitors to realize that different parks have different management agencies and, therefore, may have different policies and use regulations. I penned an opinion piece in Bay Nature Magazine that gives more insight into this and weighs whether parks should be open or closed.