If you’re looking to get fresh air and exercise, after Monday, March 23, you’ll have to do so other than city, county and state parks, especially the statewide trail system.
With the coronavirus pandemic continuing its spread throughout Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, with CDC guidance to maximize social distancing and avoid gatherings larger than 10 people, the Florida Department DEP has closed all Florida State Parks, including the Withlacoochee Rails to Trails, to the public effective today.
According to the DEP website, the agency has taken many measures to continue providing resource recreation at our state parks during this time, such as limiting operating hours and reducing visitor capacity at parks with high visitation. Unfortunately, this has not resulted in the reductions needed to best protect public health and safety as Florida continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
“We appreciate your cooperation and understanding as we work to prioritize the welfare of our communities and staff,” the DEP stated on its website. “We look forward to welcoming you again to our award winning state parks as soon as possible.”
Sherry Bechtel, owner and operator at Inverness Bicycle & Fitness, said while the decision to close the trail is difficult, she encouraged people to look at it from another angle: the usage. A year ago, there was more than 350,000 trail users, or 1,000 per day.
“You’re around a lot of people,” she added, noting the nationwide plea for “social distancing.”
In addition, she said, from an accident stand point, if a trail user is injured, it could take up a much-needed hospital bed.
“This is about getting people to avoid hurting themselves,” she explained.
Still, the decision doesn’t rest well with those who frequent the trails for cycling, running or walking.
“It was so busy yesterday with runners, bikers and walkers,” said Jessica Barnes, whose family of four ventured outside for a morning run. “People were courteous and were respectful of distances. I think I actually had more people say hi to me yesterday than on a normal Sunday run. Exercise and sunshine does a body, mind and attitude good.”
Added Kevin Foy, an avid cyclist and runner: “Not happy.”
The city of Inverness announced it was closing Whispering Pines Park, the Depot District; Liberty Park, Wallace Brooks Park and the Inverness Visitor Center. All park users were asked to leave the parks at 11:30 a.m. Monday. The county also followed suit, closing all of its parks, but noted boat ramps will remain open.
“Sucks,” said Artur Rucinski, another avid runner who plays in weekly pickup soccer games at Homosassa Area Recreational Park (HARP) in Homosassa.
The city of Crystal River early this afternoon announced all of its all parks, including kayak launches at Hunter Springs and King’s Bay Park, are closed effective today. Boat ramps will remain open, according to Leslie Bollin, the city's public information officer.
Three Sisters Springs land access is closed until further notice, too, Bollin later notified the Chronicle.