The choice is between compliance when enjoying nature or lockdown

Those of us who want to enjoy exercise and the solace of the natural world at this time need some simple rules

It is now clear that physical distancing, which has so quickly become the new normal in supermarkets and pharmacies, is not being observed by some people for outdoor recreation.Electronic signs in Phoenix Park give advice on social distancing.Photograph by Crispin Rodwell for the Irish Times

The Government has said it wants to keep outdoor spaces - parks, mountain trails, beaches - open to the public. But a spokeswoman added a caveat that agencies like the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Coillte needed to urgently develop effective messaging about appropriate outdoors physical distancing during the coronavirus crisis.

And the Taoiseach subsequently warned, quite rightly, that if these messages were not heeded, the government would implement any “further restrictions” on medical advice.

We are inches away from total lock-down, because of failures by some people to observe new outdoor protocols in a time of pandemic.

Last Friday, I wrote an article arguing that the benefits of our access to the outdoors and nature, for physical exercise and mental uplift, should be taken into account fully as the Government weighs the painfully difficult decision of confining us to our homes to stem the spread of the coronavirus.


There were many positive online and social media responses. Others expressed varying degrees of doubt about the balance of costs and benefits.

A friend in Madrid, an epicentre of the crisis, warned bluntly that “you are dangerously wrong on this one.” Another friend, who has just lost a beloved son to the virus in London, most generously found the time to write that the article was “good advice”. But she expressed serious concern about congestion, even on the streets around her home.

We writers sound off easily and often, sometimes too easily and too carelessly. I’ve never felt more acutely aware of the responsibility of offering opinions for publication. Lives are at stake, right here and right now, in every discussion we have, privately or publicly, on the pandemic.

Over the weekend, the flow of images of numbers of people literally rubbing shoulders, in Glendalough car park (since closed) and other popular beauty spots, made my heart sink. It is now clear that physical distancing, which has so quickly become the new normal in supermarkets and pharmacies, is not being observed by some people for outdoor recreation.

Many people, however, from my personal experience, and from online comments, were scrupulous about physical distance this weekend. And, again from personal experience, it was easy to find, just a few miles from Glendalough - I’m lucky enough to live locally - lovely places where nobody else, or just a handful of individuals, or family groups, were walking.

It’s likely that the cabin fever naturally engendered by cooped-up families is driving many people, who rarely or never go hiking normally, out into the countryside for respite. And while those of us who regularly enjoy the great outdoors often seek out solitude, that sensation may be initially unpleasant to those unfamiliar with it.

Hence, perhaps, the tendency at the weekend to gather in groups and seek out well-known places. The dangers of this must be communicated very fast and very well, if lock-down is to be avoided. And perhaps an online guide to local walking routes across the country could be quickly compiled?

In fairness to state agencies and outdoors groups, many good messages have already been sent out. On Friday evening, the OPW had electronic signs in the Phoenix Park, reminding us to stay two metres apart.

Leave No Trace, an agency that works with the NPWS, Coillte, the OPW and others to foster responsible outdoor recreation, has been posting useful new norms for walkers and cyclists, endorsed by the HSE.

However, this advice still says that “small group sizes should be kept to a minimum”. And Paul Kelleher, President of Mountaineering Ireland, in an otherwise excellent and detailed statement today urging people to ‘stay in or stay local’, also advises ‘walk in small numbers’.

A different consensus is emerging online: if we are still to walk in the outdoors at all, we simply cannot walk in groups at all. Those agencies, clubs and NGOs involved in the outdoors should immediately produce and communicate a definitive list of simple rules to guide those of us who want to enjoy health-boosting exercise and the solace of the natural world at this time, without putting anyone at risk from coronavirus.

If we do not abide by such rules, lock-down becomes the inevitable and correct, if regrettable, response by government.

Such a list could include these points:

1. Don’t go out at all if you have any symptoms of coronavirus, whether diagnosed or not. That includes sneezing or coughing. And if you find yourself coughing or sneezing while you are outdoors, use your sleeve to absorb the mucus, and maintain maximum distances from others.

2. Only go out with people you already share living space with. Don’t meet up with friends.

3. Even such home-based groups should spread out, walking apart in ones and twos, so that it is easy for other walkers to pass them, two metres off. Never form a line across a path.

4. Walk and cycle to the left, like we do on roads, to make passing well apart smoother.

5. Maintain the two metre distance by waiting for others to pass, where necessary.

6. Avoid beauty spots and tourist traps, stay local. If you see congestion starting, at a car park or on a trail, just drive, walk or cycle away from it.

7. Find the beauty in places you previously considered ‘dull’. It’s there if you look for it!

Unless and until the Government decides to impose a total lock-down, we all have to make the call individually as to whether we go outdoors for recreation, or not.

The arguments are very strong that exercise in nature - and that includes your local tree-lined street or riverbank or pocket park - boosts your immune system and gives balm to your troubled mind. But these benefits cannot outweigh putting lives at risk.

We must choose between compliance with these new norms, or being locked down. It’s up to each and all of us.

Paddy Woodworth is a writer and a research associate at Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis.