by Lowell Bliss
… so long as local regulations during this pandemic allow it.
… so long as you hike only with those with whom you are already sheltered-in-place.
… so long as you stay six feet away from strangers.
… so long as you wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.
On Saturday, my dog and I found a padlock on the pedestrian’s gate onto Nickel Beach, a public space owned by the City of Port Colborne, ON. The dog appeared uncomprehending and frustrated. It was a bonding moment for us. I myself almost started scratching at the chain link fence. Truthfully, I felt a moment of panic: How am I going to survive this coronavirus quarantine if I can’t leave our small house and go for our daily tramp down the length of Nickel Beach?
The definition of a “scofflaw” is easily sussed out if you divide the syllables correctly: “scoff·law.” A scofflaw is someone who “flouts the law, especially by failing to comply with a law that is difficult to enforce effectively.” Our need to “flatten the curve” on new cases of infection means that the laws and/or guidelines regarding social distancing is absolutely nothing to scoff at. But Nickel Beach is NOT some crowded beach in Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break. Nickel Beach is not some cramped park in New York City where six feet apart from anyone is impossible. The sanctuary that is Ontario’s north shore of Lake Erie is NOT the Life Tabernacle Church near Baton Rouge which, despite state restrictions, attracted 500 worshippers yesterday.
True, groups of scofflaws could gather on Nickel Beach if they wanted to, or a crowd of teenage scofflaws could use it to party—but prior to the padlock, I saw little to none of that behavior. I saw families with young kids—whom I assumed were sheltering-in-place together anyway—letting those kids play in the sand. Retired couples were walking slowly together. People with dogs also had poop bags with them, proving that they aren’t scofflaws even under normal circumstances. One couple was out in the water, wind surfing. In every encounter, we all purposefully stayed six feet away from each other. Nickel Beach isn’t huge, but it could have easily accommodated a few hundred more strolling nature lovers, without turning a single one of us inadvertently into a scofflaw.
The term scofflaw was apparently coined during the Prohibition, which is ironic now because our premier, Doug Ford, has declared that along with grocery stores and pharmacies, liquor stores and cannabis shops are officially considered “essential services.” Yep. The measure has been supported by mental health officials, like Larry Grupp, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and an expert in the neurobiology of alcoholism: “If you’re a real alcoholic, then you’re going to have epilepsy, and (if) you’re going into withdrawal because you don’t have access to alcohol, you could die. . . I think they’re just trying to avoid any more kind of social unrest on top of the (COVID-19) problems.”
Mental health is actually what I think of when I think of Nickel Beach. If hops and hemp are parts of nature considered “essential” to our mental health, well then why not sand and surf? Has Ford never listened to John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High”? Yesterday, our prime minister addressed the nation. Justin Trudeau said, “Over the past few weeks, our daily lives have been transformed because of COVID-19. You might find that this crisis is having an effect not just on your everyday routine, but on your mental health, too.” (He gets me!) Trudeau helpfully encouraged us to “reach out.” I wish he had also recognized that he was recording his message outside the front door of his residence and had taken a moment to look away from the camera to say, “reach out AND go out.”
We are staying at home because our government wants us to care for our neighbours and for the potentially over-taxed healthcare system that will need to care for our most vulnerable. Yet, to do so faithfully for the length of time required to “flatten the curve,” means also that I need to engage in self-care, and I need to attend to the care of my wife and two adult daughters who are stuck in these four walls with me. We all need to use the therapeutic value of going outside to help us endure this period of social distancing. We need the sun on our faces and the wind in our hair. We need to see a horizon that stretches beyond our wallpaper. If anything, we need to spot the first jonquil of Spring and hear the first robin to return. They are harbingers of hope. This quarantine is like a fallow winter. We will re-emerge.
So, get outside. (. . . so long as you don’t scofflaw it.) Go outside for the sake of your mental health and for your sense of hope. This article is the first in a series. A steel padlock on Nickel Beach, and my reaction to it and my interactions with Port Colborne city officials because of it, have launched additional reflections: about a vision for public space and for wilderness space, about discovering that our own small backyards can be enough, about recognizing our own privilege, about how Wendell Berry’s poem “Stay Home,” is both NOT the perfect poem and is the perfect poem for this time.
For now though, go outside! Attached are links to two helpful articles about how to adjust your outside time during a pandemic—for your own health and for the health of your neighbours. They mention the same guidelines that I listed above (obey laws, hike only with your household, stay six feet away, wash hands) and then add another one: don’t take unnecessary risks while outside, since our emergency rooms should be reserved for COVID-19 patients, not for cocky knuckleheads. In the words of our prime minister: “I know this is tough, not being able to see your friends at school, not being able to have your support network close by or do the things that keep you feeling healthy. It can take its toll. It’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s ok to have tough days. But I want you to know that you are not alone.” Take one step outside and you will realize that this is true. You are not alone. There is no shortage of flora and fauna providing essential services for you 24/7. Biologists call these “ecosystem services,” named so because they are services provided to society free-of-charge simply because grassy swales naturally purify drinking water, lakes naturally provide recreation, or fertile soil naturally provides food. In our case, go outside and meet the honking geese, the twittering robins and the welcoming daffodils. Don’t be deceived: they are actually a phalanx of therapists mobilized by God during this time of our crisis.
Outside Magazine: “The Rules for Going Outdoors During Coronavirus”
BBC News: “Coronavirus: How to go for a walk safely, without getting shamed”