COVID-19 Distancing Fails in Denver Outdoor Public Places

The social distancing wasn't all that distant at Washington Park on Saturday.
The social distancing wasn't all that distant at Washington Park on Saturday. Photo by Michael Roberts
A major theme of Governor Jared Polis's latest COVID-19 announcement, issued during the late afternoon of Sunday, March 22, was the importance of social distancing — but not everyone appears to be getting the message. Indeed, many of the folks at four outdoor public-gathering places in the greater metro area that I visited this weekend didn't seem all that concerned about staying the recommended six feet or more away from other people.

Especially families at playgrounds and dudes hooping it up on basketball courts, as if the spread of a certain virus hasn't radically changed Colorado life as we knew it.

Of course, the urge to get outside is absolutely understandable. When Saturday, March 21, dawned clear and bright after a brief but substantial snowstorm, the case of cabin fever from which the city as a whole has been suffering became particularly acute — and my wife and I were not immune. After discussing trips to some of our favorite strolling destinations, which we thought might not be overly crowded, we settled on the Clear Creek Trail in Golden, which won the Best of Denver award for best urban walk last year.

When we arrived around mid-day, the number of people gathered there was smaller than it would have been in a non-COVID-19 world, but still fairly substantial — and the six-foot rule didn't seem to be at the forefront of anyone's mind other than ours. People were walking in knots of two, three or more, as expected, and there were typically decent-sized gaps between groupings. But when these clusters passed each other going the opposite direction, social distancing became a distant concept. The paths in many spots are eight feet across — enough so that the six-foot space would have been maintained had everyone fallen into a single-file progression for a second or two. But no: The groups typically walked abreast as they ordinarily would, causing the distances to shrink to inches in many cases.

And when either dogs or toddlers abruptly stopped in the middle of the route, all bets were off. Instead of leaving the path to maintain the six-foot bubble, people usually just squeezed by, often closely enough that actual physical contact remained a definite possibility. And then there were the runners, who weaved among the pedestrians, passing with just a foot or two on either side.

click to enlarge Outdoors lovers at Clement Park on Saturday. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Outdoors lovers at Clement Park on Saturday.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Curious to see if this behavior was an anomaly, we then embarked on a tour of other great places to walk, run or cycle in the area.

Our next stop was City Park, which was considerably more crowded, albeit not as jammed as it would have been under other circumstances. The volume of foot traffic meant even more encounters of the type we had just encountered in Golden: groups of people with fewer than six feet in front of or behind them, and a lot less to the right or left when it came to passing gaggles. Likewise, the presence of more runners meant more heavily breathing individuals huffing and puffing alongside dozens upon dozens of fellow revelers.

From there, we went to Washington Park, which quickly became the local spot most likely to furrow Polis's brow. The paths were bumpin' and the playgrounds were crowded with kids to whom the idea of staying six feet away from each other was completely foreign — and while the tennis courts were off-limits (even though the game itself has distancing built in), the basketball courts were filled with what appeared to be participants in pick-up games. What could go wrong?

Our final destination was Clement Park, the large recreation area and lake just to the west of Columbine High School in Jefferson County. There, the behavior we'd seen during our tour to date was repeated, especially at the main entry point for the lake walk, just off a series of parking lots for adjacent businesses. People weren't right on top of each other, but neither did they seem overly concerned when the six-foot barrier was breached. That might have seemed weirdly anti-social, and nobody wants that.

Of course, this situation could change if the number of fatalities in the Denver area skyrockets. But this past weekend, social distancing proved to be a bridge too near.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts