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Outdoor crowds test the limits of social distancing in fight against coronavirus

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A lot of people got out of the house with family and friends along the Mill Creek trail on a sunny, early-spring Sunday afternoon in Walla Walla. Officials say getting outside is a good thing, so long as people are practicing safe social distancing and not crowding together amid the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Forced to work from home, with kids’ toys crowding the living room and restaurants drawing shut, many people have turned to the outdoors — too many, it turns out.

Police over the weekend took to loudspeakers and blared reminders for Seattle parkgoers to keep their distance from each other.

The announcements raised the specter of legal consequences and stricter government measures that could come to the region if state and local leaders order more businesses to close and residents to shelter in place.

While Gov. Jay Inslee has avoided such restrictions as government leaders worldwide work to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, other officials are beginning to take action on their own.

Their approaches vary, but have the same goal: for people to stay home.

King County, Seattle and other cities have closed portions of their parks. Everett’s mayor directed residents to stay home. And some governments are taking more targeted measures, like the Pacific County health officer who closed beaches to razor clam digging.

Meanwhile, Washington State Parks officials announced Sunday they were closing campgrounds throughout the state until April 30.

Depending on local law, cities and counties can have sweeping emergency powers, said University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer.

Local government officials can impose curfews, shutter businesses, close all streets and take other actions allowed in their charter or municipal codes. Municipalities can act to protect public health and safety, Spitzer said, as long as they don’t directly conflict with state law.

“Yes, we’re in a democracy,” he said, “which means we elect the people who then get these very strong powers in emergency situations.”

In Seattle, for instance, the mayor can close all businesses until further notice, order geographic or citywide curfews, and close all streets, parks, beaches, amusement areas and public buildings. Violations would be punishable by a fine of up to $500 or by up to 180 days in jail, or both, according to the municipal code.

Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin decided to issue a stay-home directive after she saw families gathering at local playgrounds and parks.

Many cities have similar laws on the books, but while local officials can issue orders stronger than the state government’s, they can’t be weaker. So a city or a county could go further than Inslee’s current prohibition on gatherings of 50 or more people, by limiting them to 10 people for example.

Threats of trespassingOn Saturday a Seattle police officer warned parkgoers who had gathered under sunny skies on ballfields at Cal Anderson Park. They were less than 6 feet from each other, against social distancing recommendations.

“Your current conduct is placing yourself and your fellow Seattleites in danger,” the officer said over a loudspeaker. “Lack of voluntary compliance could result in a full closure of all parks, which will eventually result in trespasses, and possibly criminal prosecution.”

At the moment, police “are having a presence in parks,” Seattle Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin said.

“If there is any kind of large- or medium-size gathering they’ll be called in to disperse that,” she said, referring to the governor’s current order.

King County and the city of Seattle closed all playgrounds and sports courts over the weekend. The cities of Sammamish, Bellevue, Lynnwood and Kirkland also closed playgrounds and courts.

Schulkin said she was unaware if officers issued citations or took other specific enforcement actions for social distancing or accessing closed areas of parks. “The farthest we’ve gotten is asking people,” she said, “and they’ve complied.”

Cherry trees irresistibleIt’s not just urban parks drawing people outside. People have flocked to see sights like Snoqualmie Falls and the annual cherry blossoms on the University of Washington campus.

Despite university officials’ suggestions that fans watch online from home, they’ve shown up to see the bloom in person.

Last week, university police posted signs and assigned bike patrols around the cherry trees, to warn people against standing too close to each other.

For the most part, “people have not been congregating, but when they have, they’ve been reminded,” said University of Washington Police Maj. Steve Rittereiser. “They’re responding in a reasonable way. They’re taking the advice of the officers.”

Parks officials say that outdoor activity is still encouraged, unless it happens to be at a popular destination.

“If you’re just with your family — your little quarantine pod — and there are a lot of people there, we’d like it if you could make a different choice,” said Schulkin from Seattle Parks and Recreation.