The Niagara Parks Commission is encouraging people to stay home but has no plans to close its parking lots, says CEO David Adames.
While the parks agency has closed public operations and recreational amenities, he said trails and open spaces will remain open for “walkthrough access only.”
Sunday’s warm weather and blue skies brought out scores of people to walk the trails and parks along the Niagara Parkway, despite provincial orders to stay home other than for essential trips.
The parking lots along the Niagara River were packed so full that people started parking along the roads and in the grass, and groups of more than five people could be seen mingling.
Adames said the Niagara Parks board “extensively discussed” whether to close the parking lots, but decided not to for logistical and safety reasons.
“We have a 56-kilometre parkway, a 53-kilometre Niagara recreation trail, over 13,000 hectares of open space, so to be able to physically lock that down is obviously a challenge — and that’s a bit of an understatement,” Adames said.
With such a high volume of people coming, blocking off parking lots would only cause more problems, he said,
“Let me use the example of (Sunday) — so obviously a very beautiful spring day and people did come out. What we don’t know is precisely where they came from, but based on numbers we can make an assumption that some would have been from outside Niagara, again given the volume. So, if we close the parking lots, there’s a risk that people might park unsafely, or access trails unsafely. ie. a non-trailhead. And we’ve had that experience in the past,” he said.
He said in the last two weeks one person has fallen into the Niagara River and two people went off trail — all three needed to be rescued.
“What that does is puts our emergency personnel at risk,” Adames said. “We had to have our high angle river team through our Niagara Parks Police go out for rescue in both cases, also Niagara Falls Fire Department in both cases.”
Niagara Parks is trying to balance concerns by encouraging people to follow provincial orders to stay home, but keeping the park trails open and safe, he said.
“We know from experience that if you don’t set up safe situations, you have more risk of those incidents, and that actually puts even more people at risk,” he said.
However, even with parking lots open, people were still parked illegally along the road and creating new parking spots in the parks.
“So, in those situations, our Niagara Parks Police are patrolling,” Adames said.
“We have police patrolling, and we have police visible. In fact, they were very visible (Sunday) in particular, because we knew that there was a risk with that good weather that it would bring out more people.”
He said parks police handed out more than 100 tickets over the weekend, most of which were for parking illegally, and that so far nobody has been fined for violating emergency orders.
If parks police see people who aren’t social distancing, or groups larger than a family, they try to ask them to physically distance, Adames said.
“Our number 1 approach is to engage and educate,” he said.
The large number of people coming is something the Parks Commission is concerned about, which is why it is telling people to stay home.
“It’s a shared concern, but we know that there are people coming out, including many Niagara residents, coming out for their health and wellness as well,” Adames said.
He also pointed out that if the trails were closed, it might have led for a “higher concentration of people in other areas.”
Adames said there’s also the argument that open walking spaces might actually be a good thing.
“It’s interesting … B.C.’s chief medical officer of health was saying last week that the risk of getting infected by COVID-19 outside in a park setting is very, very low risk and there might be a higher risk on mental health” by not allowing people to enjoy the outdoors, he said.
The Town of NOTL signed an agreement with Parks Canada last week to allow bylaw officers to enforce fines on the federal agency’s property. Niagara Parks said it would not do the same, as it has its own police service.
“And they’ve been in place since 1887, so it’s been a longstanding history,” he said.
He emphasized Niagara Parks has been consistent in its messaging to stay home.
“We will be welcoming visitors in the future when it is safe to do so, but right now it’s to listen to the advice of the Ontario chief medical officer or health, and that message is to stay home, only undertake essential travel. And even when you do go out for essential travel, you should certainly not be going out if you’re exhibiting any symptoms … and again physically distancing when out.”
He said the agency is meeting provincial guidelines, which say greenspaces and trails are allowed to remain open.
“However, for those that venture out again, our parks and trails are open for walkthrough access only.”
“We’re very much relying on the individuals, both common sense and their adherence to these emergency orders.”