AROUND this time last year, I wrote about how birding, biking, and simply being outside had become COVID-19 coping strategies. I found solace and safety in the great outdoors as did many others, though it is important to note that not everyone has equal access to the mental and physical health benefits of spending time in nature.
Still, when Mayor Van Johnson issued an emergency shelter at home order in March 2019, he specifically included an exemption that permitted Savannahians to “engage in outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with social distancing requirements ... such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, or running.”
It was a wise move.
As restrictions were lifted and life eased a little closer toward pre-pandemic norms — with some adaptations such as improvised outdoor dining spaces — people who picked up the habit of morning walks and afternoon bike rides kept at it. The sidewalks of my neighborhood stayed busy as did the Truman Linear Park Trail and the Robert Espinoza Running Trail. Across the country, campground reservations soared and demand for outdoor gear of all kinds surged. Rounds of golf played per year, which have been in decline for decades, were up 13.9% in 2020.
A year later, however, are we morphing back into our more sedentary, indoor selves?
Dottie Head, director of communications at Georgia Audubon, confirmed my suspicion that birdwatching was booming last year. I asked her for an update.
“Many of the new birders who joined the flock during the pandemic have remained with us, and we continue to see strong attendance in our virtual programs and events that cater to new birders,” she said. “We are also seeing strong participation in our field trips as this is a great way to learn about Georgia’s amazing bird diversity.”
Nonetheless, as people returned to offices and classrooms, the dynamic has changed.
“The overall enthusiasm has leveled off a bit as people have gone back to work and school, but I feel like many people have a newfound appreciation for birds, the outdoors, and the importance of green space and parks where we can go to connect to the natural world and recharge ourselves,” Head said.
Caila Brown, executive director of Bike Walk Savannah and chair of Friends of Tide To Town, shares Head’s belief in the critical importance of green space, both for recreation and transportation. Disclosure: I serve on both organizations’ boards of directors.
“There are a few reasons that building better mobility options via systems like Tide to Town or a connected network of bike lanes and sidewalks is important. Frequent outdoor activity has been shown to reduce stress levels and improve overall physical health, and many communities saw even the most robust of trail systems completely packed with more people than they’d ever seen before. For those of us who began the pandemic working from home, or had lost jobs and were looking for things to do, trails and paths created space to expend energy and reevaluate how we spend our time,” she said.
Dr. Joe Richardson, who operates Tybee Beach Ecology Trips, said he didn’t detect a spike in bookings due to pandemic-fueled affinity for nature, as his customers are typically interested in learning about coastal ecosystems to begin with. However, the procedures he follows probably positioned his business to thrive during the pandemic.
“My trips are suited for safe operation during times when people are concerned about protecting themselves from others through social distancing,” he said. “The entire trip is conducted outside, on the beach, so when I’m asked — as sometimes happens — about any procedures used during my trips, I answer that we are out on the beach and folks can distance as they choose.”
Richardson said moving activities outside should remain an important tactic to ensure safety during public health emergencies.
“For folks, decision makers, and policy makers concerned about social distancing as a safety measure in the future, I would advise them to consider and encourage outdoor activities for individuals, families and groups. Access to beaches, parks, and outdoor recreation areas would be important,” he said.
For her part, Head said Georgia Audubon will keep adaptations that were developed to safely respond to the increased interest in birdwatching. Offering a blend of in-person and online programs, providing more flexibility in scheduling, and developing a library of on-demand material has increased access to the organization’s programs.
“Initially, there was a steep learning curve as we embraced the technology and asked our members and program participants to do the same, but Georgia Audubon is stronger organizationally because of the changes we made during the pandemic. And we have no intention of going back to the old way of doing business.”
At Bike Walk Savannah, Brown modified procedures used by the New Standard Cycles program, which gives refurbished bicycles to people who need reliable transportation. The goal was to help more people more quickly.
“For those of us who continued to work, but lacked access to a motor vehicle, the pandemic exacerbated issues in our public transportation system and created new challenges to overcome,” she said. “As capacity for buses was reduced and schedules were adjusted, people often had to wait longer or walk or bike a longer distance in order to get to their jobs, doctor’s appointments or to the grocery store.”
While the program has helped hundreds of people, providing bicycles is only one part of what must be a much larger solution. In order for people to reach important destinations by bike, in the midst of a pandemic or when things ‘return to normal,’ improved infrastructure is critical.
“If we can create more safe places to move outside of personal motor vehicles, people like our program recipients would not only have the tools to get around when they have no other option, but be able to make it part of their daily lives,” she said.
Similarly, Head emphasized the importance of access to places where the natural world can be appreciated and enjoyed.
“As a conservation professional, I certainly hope that this awareness and enthusiasm will continue. It will be interesting to see as we begin to return to more normal activities whether people continue to prioritize spending time in nature and whether this translates to a heightened interest in issues affecting birds and the environment, and in creating and conserving high quality parks and green spaces for all to enjoy,” she said.