Lake Harriet Parkway closes to vehicles

Public health officials urge people to avoid crowds, even outdoors

Officials prepared to block off the lower Lake Harriet Parkway
Officials prepared to block off the lower Lake Harriet Parkway to vehicles on March 27 to promote social distancing in popular areas. Photos by Andrew Hazzard

The Minneapolis Park Board is closing parkways around Lake Harriet to vehicles to allow residents to spread out during Minnesota’s stay-at-home emergency order.

Parks and trails remain among the few places open to residents under Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order, designed to maintain social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. The order is in effect until April 10.

In recent weeks, many of the most popular Minneapolis trails along the Mississippi River and Chain of Lakes have become crowded with walkers, runners and cyclists. Park officials hope closing off parkways to vehicle traffic will allow those users to practice proper social distancing while enjoying the outdoors and exercising.

“This has been a collaborative effort with the City of Minneapolis in response to the people we serve and their need for social distancing within parks and public spaces,” Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Jono Cowgill said.

The MPRB initially announced the closure of parts of West River Parkway and Main Street Southeast along the Mississippi River in Downtown and Marcy-Holmes on March 26. The parkways around Lake Harriet and Lake Nokomis in South Minneapolis were added to the list of closures on March 27.

Barriers blocking vehicles have been put in place around lower Lake Harriet Parkway. Lake Nokomis Parkway has also been closed.

“Especially as workout centers and gyms have shuttered, lakes have stood out even more as an outlet for exercise and activity, but at times there have been moments where too many people are using them, too many people congregating around them, and, yes, by extension, too many good people putting themselves at risk of contracting COVID-19,” Mayor Jacob Frey said at a March 27 press conference.

Cowgill urged residents not flock to the blocked parkways and cautioned that overuse and overcrowding could lead to the MPRB having to make tough choices on limiting access to public outdoor space.

“We don’t want people coming in like this is an event,” Cowgill said. “It’s not.”

Even when outdoors, the risk of spreading the coronavirus exists in close quarters, according to Kelly Searle, an assistant professor with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Searle recommends people walk in less popular areas and urges people to get outside at off-peak times if their schedules allow. If you see a crowded area, turn around and go elsewhere, she said. For the most part, running and biking past others is OK because people are sharing space for a very short amount of time.

“The risk comes in when you’re on those leisurely strolls,” Searle said.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets that come from coughing, sneezing or even just talking, Searle said. Six feet of separation, the social distancing guideline advocated by public health officials, is critical to putting yourself out of the way of direct transmission. Being outdoors helps mitigate risk by having fewer shared surfaces to touch but can still be dangerous in close quarters.

“If you’re outdoors and close to someone, you can be in the range of those respiratory droplets,” she said.

People should only walk close to those with whom they live, Searle said. If meeting other friends at a park, it’s best to keep proper social distancing. Larger gatherings are to be avoided, even outdoors.

“Don’t allow yourself to be part of the crowd,” she said.

The MPRB is urging residents to walk to and around neighborhood parks, which officials say remain uncrowded during the coronavirus shutdown.

“We have a lot of spaces in our system that are flat, wide and open,” MPRB spokesperson Robin Smothers said.

Areas like Victory Memorial Drive and North Mississippi Regional Park in particular are easy to access by bike and car and have not experienced overcrowding, she said.

The Park Board is also trying to discourage residents from walking and running on MPRB golf courses, which staff hope to open when the stay-at-home order expires, Smothers said.

Under the vehicle access closure, the MPRB is asking walkers and runners to use regularly available walking paths and parkway roads, while cyclists are directed to use normal bike paths.

The MPRB has looked at other parkways along destinations like Lake of the Isles and Bde Maka Ska, Cowgill said, but each present their own challenges. Some Lake of the Isles private properties have right-of-way access on certain parkways that the MPRB cannot deny access to. Bde Maka Ska is bound on the north by Lake Street, a large county road. Still, options to open more space are being explored.

“We are looking at what is possible,” Cowgill said.

City public works and the MPRB will also be working to expand protected bike and pedestrian areas, Frey said, including West 36th Street between Bde Maka Ska and Dupont Avenue in Southwest Minneapolis.


NOTED:

  • MPRB Recreation Centers will be closed through May 3 due to the coronavirus outbreak.
  • The comment period for the Southwest Service Area Master Plan has been extended until April 25. Residents can comment at minneapolisparks.org/sw.