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Backlash brews over closure of York Regional Forest's 120-km trail system

Convergence of cars, people during peak spring time prompted the move, which will help prevent further spread of COVID-19, region spokesperson says
xx 2019 11 22 Fairy Lake blue sky DKjpeg
Fairy Lake Park pathway remains open in Newmarket, but all 21 forest tracts that make up York Regional Forest are closed until further notice. File photo/NewmarketToday

The closure of York Region’s 23-square-kilometres of forest to reduce the risk of infection from the new coronavirus has sparked a backlash among users of the protected land and its 120-kilometres of trails.

Frustrated residents who have been restricted to their homes for more than three weeks to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic voiced their criticism of the move after the Regional Municipality of York announced April 4 that its 21 forest tracts would be shut to the public until further notice.

“I have walked my dog three times in the last two weeks at the Hollidge Tract. I saw one person the first time, none the second time, and three the last time, all walking their dogs and none of us came within 50 yards of each other,” said Peter Mitchell on the region’s Facebook page. “No problem with social distancing, but this bureaucracy has gone crazy. We are talking about closing thousands of acres used by very few people.”

Many other citizens expressed skepticism that closing a large natural area where it is easy to maintain a six-foot distance from others is the most helpful measure to prevent community transmission of COVID-19.

“At this time when people need to get outside while practising social distancing, I believe this is a regressive move,” Brian Millage said. “Every person or related couple I have met in the past two weeks on the trail in Bendor, Graves, Hollidge, and several other tracts has been most respectful and concerned about social distancing.”

Millage and others said the forest closure only forces people to walk on more crowded sidewalks in their neighbourhoods, and on walking spaces that are still open such as Fairy Lake in Newmarket.

Peter A., whose disabled son uses a walker on the Hall Tract accessible path, said that was the only place that provided his son enough space to maintain the required physical distancing guideline.

“These forest trails were one of the only remaining, if not the only, outdoor places where I could bring my family with little to no risk of exposure,” he commented on NewmarketToday. “Extremely disappointed and baffled by what possible effect the Region could believe that closing such remote and sparse areas could have on transmission, especially while the sidewalks and stores remain bustling.”

"Stopping the availability of this forest to walk in is not ethical as it is easy to maintain distance and is the only way many people can be in nature. I have not yet felt hopeless up until this point but now I truly do," commented Emma Angelovki on NewmarketToday. "Not a good move and makes ZERO sense if the York region park paths and municipal paths through local parks are still are open."

On the other hand, some residents said York Region’s decision to shut down the forest trails was a “tough call” but a necessary one as the days get warmer and there’s no end in sight for the stay-at-home rule.

“I get both sides of this. It is getting warmer, more people (out). Stores, libraries, other spaces closed mean more people on the trails,” said Mim Harder. “People need the trails for mental health. It is a tough call. I was down by Lake Ontario the other day and I have never seen so many people in the area I was at. Usually there are one to two cars, but there were at least 20. We have to stop the spread and municipalities don’t want to be responsible for the spread by not shutting down. It is a Catch 22 and there are no easy or good answers,” she said.

Resident Julianna Wilson agreed, saying the trails may be quiet for now but not for long.

“It’s amazing how many of you are not understanding what "stay at home (unless essential)" means,” she said. “There are lives at stake.”

For resident Cat Bezubiak, the region’s decision makes her “very sad”, but she believes strict measures now will help prevent the heartbreak caused by the pandemic playing out in Italy.

“The harsher the measures now, the less time we’ll have to spend living like this,” said Bezubiak.

For its part, York Region acknowledged that the regional forest has become a destination for residents seeking some solitude in a calm, natural environment. But unfortunately, this results in a convergence of cars and people in the parking lots during the peak times of spring and fall, spokesperson Pat Casey said.

"Even though this is the time we all want to get outside and connect with nature, closing our regional forest to the public is an important and necessary action which supports the direction of the federal and provincial government to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission and protect against its spread," said Casey.

Municipalities and conservation authorities have closed attractions and natural areas where people tend to congregate, many of whom drive to these locations from other GTA communities, he said. 

"The Region has made the difficult decision to protect individuals and families by closing the tracts and our parking facilities," Casey said. "York Region residents must do their part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by staying home where possible and practising physical distancing and good hand hygiene. We will get through this, but only if everyone does their part to protect the health and safety of our communities."

The region encourages residents to partake in outdoor activities as needed such as running, cycling and walking within their neighbourhood, while maintaining physical distancing.

Newmarket’s trail system, Fairy Lake, and bike lanes remain open for use, but playgrounds, sport fields, and the local dog park are closed until further notice.

The federal and provincial governments shuttered parks and visitor facilities under its respective jurisdictions.

Residents and families are reminded to continue to practice physical distancing by maintaining at least six feet of space between you and others outside of your immediate family, and to stay at home as much as possible.