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As U.S. cities shutter parks and trails, activists amplify calls to close Beltline

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With the coronavirus spreading, Atlanta officials are faced with a difficult decision: to shut down a major transportation artery or let it flow

People drink outside Nina & Rafi, a pizza place on the Beltline’s Eastside Trail.
The scene outside Beltline-side pizza restaurant Nina & Rafi on Saturday.
Ryan Vizzions

Despite stay-at-home orders from multiple levels of government and a spate of new COVID-19 infections in Georgia and metro Atlanta, some Beltline Eastside Trail patrons seem undeterred from carrying on standard social activities along the city’s most popular multi-use trail.

Describing the Beltline as “a transportation corridor that provides critical connections to essential services for residents,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s office told Curbed Atlanta in a statement that trail usage is on the decline, “showing that efforts to stagger trail traffic and stress social distancing are resonating” with city dwellers.

“The mayor continues to monitor the Beltline and consult with public health professionals on a daily basis,” the statement continued.

Exactly how much Beltline activity is too much remains unclear, as city officials have exempted the paved path from a mandate calling on Atlantans to stay home, unless running essential errands or exercising, and they’ve been reluctant to heed suggestions to shut it down entirely.

Since mid-March, New York City’s High Line, an elevated linear park that snakes through part of Manhattan, has been shuttered, a move prompted by the jarring spread of the virus in the city. (Locally, Cobb County, as one example, closed its entire park system on March 23 “until further notice.”)

Granted, Atlanta’s fight with COVID-19 remains far from as dire as New York’s, and the High Line is a much more confined space overall. Still, some activists in the Southeast city are up in arms over what they see as a lack of action on the part of local leaders.

Some Atlantans, as activists point out, don’t seem to realize that the effectiveness of social distancing dwindles when only practiced six days a week, and that a few hours of congregating with friends for Saturday afternoon drinks can undo the progress in slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Fulton County still leads Georgia in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases as of noon today, with 1,027 cases and 28 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.)

Additionally, as an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found, some of Fulton County’s highest-ranking public health officials, and a few of Atlanta’s city councilmembers, have voiced concerns about the municipal government’s apparent reluctance to shut down the Beltline and intown parks.

Beltline officials told the paper that trips on the trail declined drastically from March’s first weekend to its last, although crowds were seen on and around the trail as recently as Saturday.

An online petition demanding the Beltline’s shutdown has garnered more than 7,000 signatures since it was launched Saturday.

“There are thousands of streets in this city to go running,” the plea reads, later adding, “It only takes one misstep to cause an interaction that could spread illness.”

A Curbed Atlanta poll that’s received nearly 1,900 responses since last week indicates the vast majority of people—78 percent—either want the Beltline closed or stricter enforcement of social distancing guidelines enacted.

Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel, who conjured the idea for the 22-mile multi-use trail circuit for his Georgia Tech master’s thesis in the late 1990s, noted on Twitter that those who “need to get out and love the Atlanta Beltline” have other options in and around Atlanta.

He listed the Freedom Park Trail, Proctor Creek Greenway, and the Silver Comet Trail (technically closed but still patronized)—options that aren’t doted with food and drink attractions that seem to be wooing crowds during the global pandemic.

Also, nodding to Atlanta’s longtime automobile obsession, Gravel said, “How about instead of closing the Beltline, we close streets to cars so there are more places to get outside.”

The mayor’s office’s statement said whether the Beltline remains open is “up to the individuals who use it,” and that “if residents practice social distancing, avoid peak hours, and use a little common sense, there will be no need to close it.”

However, officials noted, if usage of the trail picks back up and residents skirt safety guidelines, “adjustments—including limiting hours or closing the trail altogether—will be made accordingly.”