On March 31, Gov. Janet Mills issued an updated “Healthy at Home” mandate to protect public health and safety in the face of COVID-19, requiring all citizens in Maine to remain at home from April 2 to April 30, with the exception of certain activities.
So what does that mean for outdoor lovers?
Gov. Mills addressed that in her directive during Wednesday,’s press briefing, allowing outdoor activity to continue, but with provisions. The official wording is: “Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running, or biking, but, only in compliance with the social gathering restriction in Executive Order 14 and all applicable social distancing guidance published by the U.S. and Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The bottom line is that hiking, walking the dog, strolling, and other outdoor activities are fine and encouraged, as long as people abide by the physical distancing guidelines that are in place. That means separating and leaving six feet between yourself and other people.
This directive comes after a whiplash month of announcements and closings regarding Maine’s national parks, state parks, and beaches and local hiking areas.
On March 18, the National Park Service announced it was waiving entrance fees to state parks as a way to encourage outdoor exercise while social distancing.
Then the people came—too many—crowding beaches, state parks, and public outdoor spaces.
Nearly a week later on March 26, several of Maine’s national parks, including Acadia, the Appalachian Trail Katahdin, Woods and Water announced they were closing, instead, due to COVID-19 precautions.
According to Jim Britt, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, “Some of our coastal state parks were at or exceeding peak season capacity.” A day later, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry closed 10 coastal parks.
With only local hiking trails now open during the social distancing order, which allows outdoor exercise, local and out-of-state citizens began flocking to the spaces they usually go to.
Only more and more came—too many.
Numerous local Facebook users complained in comments last week about too many cars appearing at Beech Hill Preserve, lined all up and down the road, on public beaches, and at other popular trails, such as Bald Mountain Preserve and the Carriage Hill Trails in Camden, as well as the Georges Highland Trailhead off Route 17. Others pointed out that because of a lack of car-pooling, more individuals are arriving alone, resulting in more cars.
Then on March 28, record volumes of visitors not heeding the parking lot limits prompted Coastal Mountains Land Trust to have to close Beech Hill Preserve temporarily. [Update: CMLT announced on April 1 that Beech Hill Preserve was re-opening with some changes.]
“We did not see this coming,” said CMLT Executive Director Ian Stewart. “Beech Hill is likely to re-open, but with a lot more signage limiting parking. If the parking lot is full, that limits how many people can safely be in one area. When you have excessive parking on the roads, that’s the issue. The key thing is, if you see a parking lot to your favorite spot is full, have a Plan B to go somewhere else. There are a lot of options around here.”
Stewart said Beech Hill Preserve is the only one of their properties to close, although Bald Mountain Preserve has shown excessive use in recent weeks and they are monitoring that. Fernald's Neck Preserve is also temporarily closed, due to mud season.
“If we have to, we may close down other areas, but we think with some education and more signage, it will change some of these practices,” said Stewart. “Not that we’re discouraging people from our properties. We understand that people want to be outside and support their desire to do so. We just want people to spread out and respect the need to keep our communities safe.”
His tips include:
- Observe social distancing even when outdoors: stay six-feet apart. “If you have to go off-trail to do this, you won’t be doing too much damage to the vegetation this time of year to step off to the side.”
- Carry in and carry out. “We’re hunkered down as much as everyone else, so we’re really relying on people to self-enforce this.”
- Plan B: “If your favorite spot is full, just go for a local walk down your own street or in your own neighborhood.”
- Recognize that others have touched the same rocks, trees, picnic tables, etc. Wash hands; sanitize appropriate surfaces, etc.
Elsewhere, the Parks and Recreation departments of local towns are issuing their own statement regarding the public use of their outdoor areas. All Kennebunk beaches have been closed as of March 28.
This story will be updated as more information comes in.
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org