Austin parks enforce social distancing measures with patrols

Brooke Ontiveros

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Austin’s park rangers have asked about 2,000 parkgoers to comply with social distancing orders since the city began enforcing them last month. However, no tickets have been issued to anyone in the city. 

“We have received overwhelming voluntary compliance from the public,” Bailey Grimmett, a city of Austin spokesperson, said in an email.

Park rangers have asked 2,066 people to comply with the 6-feet physical distancing mandate since they started patrolling late last month, Grimmett said. According to the order issued by Mayor Steve Adler, physical distancing violations can be punished with a fine up to $1,000 or jail time for up to 180 days.

Six to seven rangers patrol the parks every day to ensure everyone complies with physical distancing requirements, Grimmett said. Members of the same household, such as roommates and family members, can stay together.

To further increase social distancing practices, the city of Austin began converting the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake to a one-way trail on Monday, according to a city press release. Additionally, park facilities such as playgrounds, basketball courts, skate parks and golf courses have been closed. 

“Parks are important for the physical and mental health of Austinites,” Grimmett said. “However, the safety of the public is the top priority of the city of Austin.”

Grimmett said park rangers, who now patrol alone in vehicles to comply with the social distancing order, look to educate park visitors on the new rules. Only when a park ranger determines a threat to life, health or safety exists will they issue a citation.

“We are heavily reliant on our communities’ will to address this through self-regulation,” Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt said at a news conference on Tuesday. “If the community is unable to embrace these orders, yes, we will have to regulate, but I think COVID-19 is punishing those individuals itself.”

The Austin Police Department acts similarly, Grimmett said, and if anyone sees someone violating social distancing or facial covering regulations, they’re asked to call 311.

Graduate student Josey Wright said she thinks adding regulations is much better than closing parks since going to parks may be the only way for some people to get outside.

“Especially in an urban area, exercising and being able to get outside is good for mental health,” Wright said. “I was worried about not being able to get out at all if the parks were to close.”