By Christopher Jones
As springtime arrives, Falls Church residents are flocking to the City’s portion of the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, presenting social distancing challenges along the way. However, City officials, park administrators and trail users appear to be balancing the safety needs of the trail’s pedestrian and vehicle users with opportunities to enjoy outdoor exercise and a break from being pent up during the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to NovaParks, the trail’s managing agency, Falls Church normally sees an average of 2,600 trail users per day on the paved two-way trail. With residents longing for outdoor exercise, however, numbers have risen.
“We’ve definitely seen an uptick in usage of the trail recently,” said Mark Whaley, park operations superintendent for NovaParks.
In response to the pandemic, Whaley emphasized, NovaParks recently updated its posted “Safety Guidelines,” stressing the need to “Prepare, Be Aware, and Show You Care.” New trail signage encourages trail users to follow CDC guidelines, maintain six feet of social distancing, practice good hygiene, avoid trail use if symptomatic, avoid large groups, and share the trail courteously (e.g., provide audible warning when passing, etc.).
However, restrooms, water fountains and parking lots along the trail have been closed.
So far, according to Whaley, park authorities have received generally positive feedback from residents about safety precautions, though reactions vary.
“We’re hearing a lot of feedback from people who want the parks to be open again…,” said Whaley, however, some “wish other people would social distance more,” wear masks, ride their bikes safely and stay further away.
From his own trail observations, where he often jogs wearing a protective mask, Whaley claims to have seen trail users working cooperatively to insure safety and enjoyment.
“I’ve seen pretty good trail behavior,” he said, commenting how people have shown some decent strides at social distancing, while adding that there have been no unusual police incidents.
Falls Church Chief of Police Mary Gavin also commended City residents for safe trail behaviors, noting how City police have issued no citations there to date.
The department’s approach to social distancing complaints is to “Engage, Inform, and Encourage” residents about Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s coronavirus orders, rather than just issue tickets.
“We recognize that everyone is under tremendous stress during these unusual times,” she said. “We hope to continue to do our part to bring our community together, by staying apart.”
Jan Feuchtner, owner of Bikenetic in the city and a frequent user of the W&OD trail, said he’s noticed that the route is way busier than normal.
He believes, however, that trail behavior has changed recently and “users are definitely trying to avoid close contact with one another, although sometimes shoulder brushes are inevitable when congestion builds at certain points.”
Recently, he noticed an apparent change in mentality among its users, where most of them appeared to be wearing masks.
“It’s likely caused by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommendations” to wear protective coverings in public, Feuchtner said.
“Combined with the popularity [of] and congestion along the trail.”
But Feuchtner also said experienced bike riders on the trail understand the importance of slowing down and calling out when passing.
However, “some of the newer users of the trail are still picking up on trail etiquette.” Feuchtner advises bikers to “Just calm down. Slow down. Be kind. Announce your pass — We all have plenty of time right now,” so, as he said, “take it easy!”
Pro Bike FC store owner Nick Clark has also noticed a significant increase in W&OD trail usage recently.
With lots more families and kids on the path, he recommends fast bikers looking for high-speed exercise avoid the trail altogether during peak times and take to the roads instead.
Leanne Pinski, who frequently walks her dog along the trail, said users have been mostly following safety guidelines.
“I use it every day to run my dog and feel as if it’s crowded during the nice days, but not too much. Everyone’s signalling and saying ‘Passing on your left.’ People seem to be following the guidelines posted out here…and are “being responsible as much as possible,” she said.
For Falls Church resident Alex Hou, who frequently takes his young son, Max, bicycling on the trail, the social distancing they’ve seen has been okay. However, he said, “On some days people are not doing it as well as on others… more problems occur when it’s a nice weather day, for example.”
So, they try to adjust their route depending on how crowded it is.
Another daily jogger on the trail, who chose not to be named, said “I think people are following social distancing guidelines… When you’re about to meet someone on the trail, you can see they try to move further away, so you don’t meet face-to-face.”
Falls Church resident Rosaly Kozbelt uses the trail almost every day and describes the social distancing efforts as a “mixed bag.
“I feel least pleased by some of the runners without shirts or masks on and they’re breathing very heavily when they pass and they’re sweating quite a lot, and not leaving a whole lot of room,” Kozbalt said. But, I guess they pass fairly quickly, so I just try to hold my breath and let it go.”
While she hasn’t seen any conflicts between trail users, she has seen some dirty looks exchanged. For the most part, however, she said people are keeping it pretty civil.
“I think we’re all in this together, right?” Kozbalt said. “Everybody’s just trying to clear their head and get a little fresh air, and there are limited places to go, so you just try to be civil and friendly while giving everybody their space.”