I have been on a wild goose chase. Literally. I worked for the Youth Conservation Corps in Wisconsin in the summer of 1984, and our job one day was to walk through the wetlands chasing Canadian geese. We started at one corner of a swamp, about a dozen feet apart – socially distancing decades before that was a thing. At the opposite corner was a net. It was molting season so the birds could not fly. As we trudged through the mud in rubber boots – sometimes up to our chests in muck – we moved closer together, pushing the flightless creatures further down the funnel until finally, they were trapped in the net. The hunt was for their own good: The captured geese were tagged for research and released. We hosed and showered ourselves off afterwards. We were teenagers. Being filthy was fun.
Now, I know how the geese feel. The country, state, county, and city have been driving us into tighter and tighter quarters. First they told us to stay indoors except for exercise. Then they closed every open space where we could exercise: the parks, the beaches, the marinas, etc. Instead of giving us ample places to social distance, they have driven us into crowded neighborhoods and streets. Unlike other cities, Los Angeles has not shut down roads to give pedestrians added walking areas. Where I live, San Pedro, I am surrounded by public spaces where we used to be able to walk for miles with minimal passers by. Now, to give myself and my dog the exercise and sunshine we all need if we are going to stay healthy and keep our immune systems up, I have to walk on hard sidewalks, ducking into the road to keep six feet from other walkers, on promenades filled with all the other people driven into this urban net, that the city keeps tightening.
The Los Angeles Times recently called on state and local governments to reconsider their stance on closing public spaces. Some counties, such as Ventura and Orange, were open this weekend in time for the first hot days of the year. Sadly, not the county and city of Los Angeles. Having made the mistake to shut the beaches to begin with, they have now created a dangerous bottleneck situation.
This is Southern California. We live here for the sun, the air, the oceans, the mountains, the desert. We need the outdoors like Las Vegas needs casinos and New Jersey needs golf courses. We are a people who swim, surf, run, ride bikes, paddleboard, kayak, skateboard, sail, and fish. Activity defines us. For many of us, to not be able to partake in these sports is an assault on our mental and physical health; this is not just emotion speaking, this is science. And believe me, there is enough room in and near the Pacific Ocean for us to keep six feet apart — if governments would just open all the beaches, instead of forcing us into a few. It’s not only science, it’s math.
As Dr. Shana Jordan, a family doctor on respiratory duty, neighbor, and avid surfer, recently wrote in a letter to Mayor Garcetti: “The ocean is not a contagion zone. No two surfers or swimmers or paddlers would ever be within six feet of each other. This is nonsense. The government is swiftly losing credibility among outdoors people, particularly surfers and runners. I understand that enforcement is made so much easier with blanket park/trail/beach closures. But without nuance it is barbaric and idiotic.”
Sure, some people are going to be stupid/reckless/forgetful and not socially distance. So control the crowds. Do what Hawaii is doing: Don’t let people hang out on the beach; let them access the beach and the ocean for exercise. Limit the numbers who can enter the sea by keeping parking lots closed or restricting access. If Home Depot can figure out how to socially distance shoppers, can’t Parks and Recreation do the same for recreators? Patrol the beach for people violating the rules. Don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bushel.
The last weekend Cabrillo Beach was open, it was a gorgeous day, and after weeks of restricted movement and rain, lots of people did turn up. It was early in the shelter-in-place restrictions, the parking lot was open, and families with small children stuck at home were desperate to do something with their kids. Rangers cruised the sands in four-wheelers politely reminding people to social distance. They were nice; they complimented my dog. Not everyone listened to them, I’m sure, but most people did. The situation could have been improved with more planning, clearer rules. Instead, by the end of the week, all access to all beaches and parks was closed. Period. That’s not government, that’s dictatorship.
Fact time: coronavirus is deadly, it’s highly contagious, it’s scary. And we in the US were not prepared for a pandemic. From the national to the local level, American governments have had to rely on social control because they have not been able to provide the social services that are the number-one factor in controlling the deadly outbreak. Five months since Covid was first identified, Americans still do not have free and widespread testing for the virus and antibodies, personal protective equipment, contact tracing, etc. Support for hospitals, the unemployed, parents with children stuck at home, small businesses, schools, etc., has been slow in coming and too little too late.
Our leaders have instead relied on us to keep each other safe – and we have been pretty damn good, overall. The infection rate in California is 104 per 100,000, less than one tenth the per capita rate in densely populated New York. It’s higher in LA, but that is largely because of infections in nursing homes, tragically. Our curve is flattening, and it was never close to the dire numbers Governor Newsom predicted early on. So why, instead of loosening the reins, do they keep wanting to tighten them? Could it be they did this not for our protection but for their own hunger for power? Or that they are misdirecting us from their continued failure to provide adequate testing? I swear Mr. Perfect Hair Newsom gets a gleam in his eye when he warns us infection rates will go up if we don’t be good little children and stay glued to our screens.
LA County Public Health director Dr. Barbara Ferrer recently said, “We know it’s best right now for us Angelenos to stay home, or stay outside [in] your own yard or your own neighborhood.” First of all, that’s the definition of a paternalistic, or maternalistic, government attitude. Secondly, not all Angelenos have yards. One of the reasons Covid-19 is affecting impoverished and minority communities with more deadly power is because people there tend to be crowded into smaller spaces with less access to public land. Third, I would like to stay in my neighborhood, but my neighborhood is closed, so I keep having to go elsewhere, where it’s more crowded, to exercise. Open my neighborhood, and I’ll happily stay put.
Florida and Georgia have opened their beaches. Michigan is letting people fish again. When will Californians be freed?
People are starting to go nuts. Instead of bringing us together, the virus is driving us further apart – literally, of course, but we are not only socially distancing, we are philosophically, psychologically and emotionally distancing. The go-outsiders roam manically, ever further, looking for room to move, venturing into dangerous territories to get the nature they need. The stay at homers lurk on social media shaming their neighbors for, I don’t know, kissing their children. There’s a woman in our neighborhood who walks around calling people into the police, even though she herself is not sheltering in place. Yesterday, ironically, we had to call the police on her because she purposely coughed on my husband and harassed our food delivery person, after we told her to stop her snooping. Early in the restrictions, one of the many locals we used to see every day at the beach stood desolately in front of the yellow tape, surfboard under his arm. A former cop, he shook his head: “They’re going too far. You go too far, there will be social unrest.”
We’re seeing that around the world now. I worry that despite every horrible thing Trump has done wrong, Democrats – and I am one — are driving people straight into his arms by making ours the party of fear, the party of no fun, the party of no freedom. Instead of the party of empathy, of support, of leadership.
I jumped into the ocean the other day for the first time in months. In seconds, it was as if the heavy coat of tar and dust that has weighed me down was rinsed off, and all that day – and still now – I felt joy again. I knew I was hurting, but I didn’t know how bad.
Push free-ranging animals into tighter and tighter quarters for a month, then turn on the heat lamp, and see what happens. And remember, we are not molting so we can fly, straight into the sun if we have to.