POINT REYES (CBS SF) -- Overflowing crowds looking for relief from the shelter-in-place order forced Marin County health officials to order all parks in the county to be closed immediately.
National Park officials also announced they were severely limiting access to the Point Reyes National Seashore beginning Sunday for at least the next two weeks.
Officials said they were forced to take the action because visitors inundated the area on Saturday.
"After unprecedented visitation and to slow the spread of COVID-19, tomorrow March 22, gates will be closed at the following areas of Point Reyes NS: Limantour Access Road, Mt. Vision Road, Drakes Beach, Drake Estero."
"In addition to listed gate closures, access will be limited at the following areas in Pt. Reyes NS - At Palomarin Trailhead beyond Commonweal entrance, Pierce Point Road, Lighthouse and Chimney Rock parking."
The park said in addition, its campgrounds and visitors centers will be closed through April 7.
The closure will affect agencies and jurisdictions who operate parks and open space in Marin County. Visitors can still travel on paved pathways maintained by the county, such as the popular Mill Valley-Sausalito Multiuse Pathway along Richardson Bay and the Corte Madera Pathway along Corte Madera Creek, as long as people follow guidelines on social distancing.
On Saturday, Marin County's coastal communities saw an unusually large influx of visitors from around the Bay Area.
The sheriff's office said the visitors created traffic congestion, which interferes with first responders' ability to handle emergencies. In addition, state and county park parking lots and bathrooms are closed due to the shelter in place order, adding to further congestion and creating problems with sanitation.
"The trail out to Tomales Point was one person after another…it was like a line of ants," said Christine Beekman, PIO for the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. "And similarly the parking lots were absolutely full, beyond capacity."
Everyone came out to play. The beaches were overrun and trails were jammed as a lot of social distancing went out the window.
"That was something even we as park officials didn't anticipate because all week visitation was way down," said Beekman. "But I think, come the weekend, people were excited about coming out enjoying the trails, enjoying the beaches and it was just too many people."
As a result, while the beaches are technically still open, many of the roads that get people there have been shut down including Limantour Road, Mt. Vision Road, Drakes Beach and Drakes Estero. On Sunday, visitors began filling the nature trails in the hills instead. Hiker Laurel Elkjer was shocked by what she saw on the Bear Valley Trail.
"We were the only ones stepping off the trail to give some space," she said. "It's also a very narrow trail, so it's very hard…you cannot observe the 6 foot distancing rule."
The parking lot at the Bear Valley Visitor Center was crowded as families and groups of friends headed up the trail. Dave Rodrigues spent the week biking trails all around the North Bay and doesn't see anything wrong with it.
"I haven't had any instance where I've come close to anybody so I'm not really worried about it," he said. "I think it's great to be outdoors. That's probably the safest place to be and it's a good time to be here. Couldn't be a better time to be outside in the Bay Area, really."
As of Sunday, 70 percent of the Pt. Reyes National Seashore was still open to the public and there had been no talk about closing any of the beaches or trails. The shelter-in-place order does allow people to go outside to get exercise but it also forbids driving long distances to get there. So far, law enforcement has not been strict about that part of the order. But Elkjer is concerned that crowding on the trails could end up ruining it for everyone if officials see a need to step up enforcement of social distancing rules.
"I feel we should be modeling for everybody appropriate behavior," she said. "And if we don't, the next thing that's going to happen is they'll close the parks altogether." And county health officials felt the same way.
"Congregating in these popular areas makes the shelter-in-place order less effective and continues to put all of our counties at risk of COVID-19 spread," said Dr. Lisa Santora, Marin's deputy public health officer, in a news release. "Marin is usually a place for recreation, but now is not the time."
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