Beltline urges recreational visitors to stay away to prevent crowds

Out and about on the Atlanta Beltline near the skatepark on March 27, 2020, people seemed to be keeping appropriate social distance. The Beltline’s CEO said the trails should be used as a “transportation corridor” for people who need to go to work, get groceries, medical supplies and services — not for recreation for the cabin fevered — as the coronavirus continued to upend everyday life. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

People visiting the Atlanta Beltline this weekend will be greeted with an ominous, once-unthinkable message: “Go home, y’all.”

It’s one of several new signs posted Friday along the popular network of trails and surrounding green spaces as Beltline officials began discouraging crowds.

“Not urgent? Don’t be here,” states another. “Safe distances and essential trips only.”

The orange placards are just the latest sign of how much the coronavirus has transformed everyday life in metro Atlanta.

With schools, gyms and many nonessential businesses closed, home-bound Atlantans have flocked to local parks, playgrounds and trails to decompress, bask in the spring sunshine and maintain some semblance of normalcy.

But recent overcrowding, particularly on the Beltline, has forced local elected officials to mull whether it's better to just close such public spaces to prevent transmission of the virus, which has to date infected more than 2,000 Georgians.

Citing the mental health benefits of outdoor time, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has allowed the Beltline and city parks to stay open, even as she closed playgrounds and ordered the city's residents to shelter in place. But that will work only if visitors can stay at least six feet apart.

That’s presented a unique challenge to the Beltline, where it’s often hard to spread out due to the crowds, particularly on its most popular sections. The average number of daily visitors crossing the high-traffic Eastside Trail bridge over Ponce de Leon Avenue between March 11 and 25 was down only 11% from last year, according to Beltline data, despite recommendations for social distancing.

In a Friday interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Beltline President and CEO Clyde Higgs praised Bottoms’ stay-at-home executive order and said trail officials would follow her guidance. During this crisis, he said, the Beltline should be used only as a “transportation corridor” for people who need to go to work or get groceries, medical supplies and services — not for recreation for the cabin fevered.

“We’re discouraging people from getting out there for general use,” he said. “If people are practicing that and supporting (Bottoms’) executive order, I think there’s going to be enough room in the corridor for people to practice social distancing.”

Higgs’ comments were a stark departure from his organization’s typical posture of promoting urban density and shared public spaces.

The Beltline has canceled its events and programming through April 25 and begun reaching out to the small businesses that line its trails to connect them with federal and state relief programs. Many of those companies have suffered due to new restrictions from the mayor's office and the lack of foot traffic.

A major test will come this weekend, when forecasted 80-degree weather is likely to draw many Atlantans outdoors.

Higgs acknowledged that his organization’s transportation-only directive will be hard to enforce — the Beltline has never been shuttered since its first section opened in late 2008.

“I’m not that sure enforcement in these times is the best and highest use of our resources,” he said. “So it’s really going to be dependent on us coming together as a community and taking some personal responsibility and not getting on the trail except for that essential use.”

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