A closed sign hangs next to an entrance to Centennial Park Playground on March 22, 2020. The City of Campbell River will keep certain trails open as long as people are able to maintain social distances. Photo by Marissa Tiel – Campbell River Mirror

Vancouver Island trail access depends on jurisdiction and use

Province still encouraging outdoor activities, but ability to ensure social distancing paramount

Vancouver Island has no shortage of walking, hiking and cycling trails, so why are some open while others are not?

The answer comes down to jurisdiction and the ability of the operators to ensure the trail or facility can be sterilized for the next user.

Public trails can include anything from a simple walkway by the ocean to difficult hiking and mountain biking trails meant for expert adventurers. However, each of these trails is owned and operated by an entity, which means that each trail has a different set of rules when it comes to COVID-19 closures.

RELATED: Popular parking lots closing across Vancouver Island to encourage social distancing

City of Campbell River Deputy City Manager Ron Neufeld explained that the city only has the power to control the trails it owns, and just because a trail is within the city limits does not mean it is under city control. Trails like the Beaver Lodge Forest Lands and those in the Elk Falls area are actually controlled by the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations & Rural Development, which has different operational abilities from the municipal government.

“Different jurisdictions all have different resources and abilities to monitor and maintain their facilities in a safe manner. The city is comfortable in maintaining the facilities, like the seawalk, with the proviso that benches and picnic tables should be avoided,” said Neufeld. “We just simply can’t ensure they’ve been properly sterilized.

“The walking spaces: absolutely. Any of those other kinds of features, we’re asking people to simply not use them right now.”

RELATED: B.C. closes all provincial parks for COVID-19 protection

Neufeld further explained that municipality get directives from the provincial government, and as of April 2, those are that outdoor activity is still acceptable provided proper social distancing is in place. That includes ensuring people are staying more than two metres apart, and that care is taken to avoid coming any closer to people who do not live in the same residence as you.

“One of the things that I think has created confusion as well is when people see others on the trail and they’re not practising physical distancing,” Neufeld said. “Just to be clear, the physical distancing is applicable anytime you encounter people outside of your family unit. It can be a couple walking down the path side by side, and that’s a different scenario than when there’s neighbours walking down a path side by side.”

RELATED: Socially distant golf remains an option for Vancouver Islanders

These rules also apply to other activities. The River City Cycling Club put out a letter to its members asking them to ensure safe distances are maintained while mountain biking, and that if these measures are not possible then to just stay at home.

“Group rides, trail activities, bring risk of exposure in a variety of ways,” the letter reads. “If you are out there, limit your rides to solo or small groups, keep significant distance between yourselves, try to control the urge to spit or fire off those ‘snot rockets’ — anyone who has seen this done at night in the headlamp is all too aware of the size of the cloud it creates — eliminate the fist bumps. DO NOT CARPOOL to the ride.”

The letter goes on to encourage people to ride within their limits and not take any unnecessary risks to avoid ending up in the hospital and further stressing the healthcare system. The club has also cancelled all group rides and trail building activities for the foreseeable future.

Other jurisdictions on the Island have had different ideas about trails and park use through the pandemic. In North Cowichan, popular trails are being policed to ensure people maintain enough distance. In certain areas, people can expect delays or even to be turned away from the parking lot.

RELATED: North Cowichan to police popular trails to ensure physical distancing

BC Parks has stated on its website that facilities and services have been closed or suspended in their parks, and that in high-traffic parks — like Elk Falls Provincial Park — the decision was made to close entirely because “it is not possible to maintain safe physical distances” in these spaces.

Neufeld said that city staff had put up signs at popular areas, informing people about the social distancing rules. Some signs have disappeared, he said, but they will be replaced to ensure the message is out there.

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