One evening in mid-March, looking to scratch a creative and social itch, the photographer John Martin texted his neighbors in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., to come outside for a socially distanced photo shoot. The street, he said, seemed to light up with cheer.
One family dressed up with sequined tops and pajama bottoms. Another posed for a take on “American Gothic.” Mr. Martin posted the series online, titling it “Porchraits.” He charged the families a small fee, which he donated to local restaurants to provide meals for health care workers. Within days he heard from other photographers around the country, including from Atlanta and Cincinnati, asking to replicate the idea.
Mr. Martin’s initiative offers a snapshot of the creative thinking needed amid the pandemic. It taught him, he said, that fostering connection in a time of distance demands ingenuity.
As the days grow longer and hotter, Americans will begin craving the rites of summer — afternoons at the pool or boating on lakes and rivers, evenings spent dancing, listening to music and eating outdoors. Those customs can’t look the same in a period of social distancing, but that doesn’t mean they should be abandoned.
With the fate of summer camp still up in the air, it’s all the more crucial to ensure people have opportunities for recreation. That, however, will require imagination on the part of community leaders and ordinary people. Bonus points if frozen daiquiri delivery is part of the plan.
Open Up the Beaches
For millions of Americans, a principal way to stay cool in summer heat is a day at the beach or out on the water, whether that means swimming, fishing or water-skiing. Far too many well-meaning public officials, though, have cut off access to these important pastimes.
New York City, for example, recently announced that its public pools will stay closed this summer, and while the fate of the beaches remains uncertain, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently said the parks department has no plan to open them.
But keeping bodies of water off limits bears its own public health risks. The former city parks commissioner Adrian Benepe warned that New York could see an increase in drownings, especially for children. If residents don’t have access to safe places where they can cool down, they may take to swimming in unguarded bodies of water like the East River. He noted that the number of drownings in the city was cut by more than 25 percent in the three years after the city opened 11 public pools in 1936.
And the more people turn to the most obvious alternative — opening up fire hydrants — the higher the risk of lowering water pressure and hampering the capacity of firefighters to do their work.
Epidemiologists said that local officials can explore ways of safely opening beaches and pools by controlling density and enforcing social distancing.
Beaches would be safer if limited to one-third or one-half of their typical density and if visitors wear masks, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. (Obviously, anyone who has Covid-19 symptoms should stay home.)
Officials might consider keeping the beaches closed on windier days, Dr. Walensky added, when aerosol droplets can travel more easily. She said pools, too, could be opened to small groups, especially since chlorine kills most germs and viruses, as long as the changing areas and surfaces around them are closely monitored or remain closed altogether.
Sure, keeping the crowds down at both pools and beaches would be a challenge — but it’s hardly impossible. The key would be admitting people in shifts and managing those crowds, and a logical solution could be hiring monitors to ensure the social-distancing rules are followed.
In New York, that could mean redeploying some of the parks department employees who typically work at the now-closed indoor recreation centers and providing protective gear to them as well as to the police officers and lifeguards who’d be on duty any summer.
Keep Gardens and Parks Accessible
Hundreds of parks, gardens, dog-runs and playgrounds across the country have been off limits in recent weeks. Dallas, for instance, briefly closed all 397 of its public parks. But Ned Friedman, director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University, said he determined early on that he would keep the arboretum open and ensure the safety of its visitors by crowdsourcing recommendations from infectious disease experts.
Dr. Friedman said the arboretum has made a number of operational changes to prevent the spread of the virus. His staff has prohibited people from sitting on benches and has rented emergency highway signs that display messages about social distancing and wearing face covers.
The goal of these measures, Dr. Friedman said, is to ensure the arboretum can remain a welcoming place for Boston residents during a challenging time. The country’s green spaces have a history of serving public health interests: Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed the arboretum as well as Central and Prospect Parks in New York, even served as the head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.
Dr. Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist, said that as local officials weigh the risks of opening up outdoor spaces they should consider the health benefits of access to nature. “Vitamin D matters for respiratory virus resistance,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “Fresh air is in my experience very good for the spirit. And exercise matters for health in general.”
The National Park Service has determined closures on a park-by-park basis; about 60 percent of its sites remain open. David Vela, the park service’s deputy director, said his agency was working with the secretary of the interior and public health officials on a plan to gradually increase access this summer. One solution: Some parks have turned two-way trails into one-ways, to limit the possibility of run-ins between hiking groups.
Golf courses are often some of the largest green spaces communities have. More states should follow the lead of Texas and open them up to walkers (and perhaps with the proper precautions, even golfers).
Close Down the Streets
Has there ever been a better time to experiment with street closures? Recent smartphone location data compiled by Streetlight Data showed that traffic has declined 83 percent in San Francisco, 77 percent in Washington, D.C., and 67 percent in New York.
In Oakland, Calif., Mayor Libby Schaaf is taking up the challenge. Oakland’s open streets initiative — which opened 74 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists this month — was particularly easy to carry out because the city used traffic data already collected for the creation of its bike lanes.
“Traffic is wildly reduced and people are behaving in a kinder way, so it’s an ideal moment to roll out an initiative that’s about joy, repurposing the commons and health,” Ms. Schaaf said in an interview Thursday.
But more walking and biking is just a start. Could street closures allow for al fresco dining, as one Twitter user suggested last week? Or how about a way to convene outdoor concerts from apartment windows, stoops or porches? Or closing down broad avenues to add shade pavilions to help urban residents sit and enjoy the shade — at a proper distance?
That’s a strikingly different tone than what New Yorkers have heard from Mayor de Blasio. In Manhattan, where 36 percent of the land is dedicated to streets, the mayor briefly piloted an “open streets” program but didn’t extend the program beyond the initial 11 days, saying it was not a priority. It should be. The city should be opening up whole avenues and blocks in Manhattan — and in Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn, too.
Few businesses beyond Amazon and toilet paper manufacturers are booming right now — but in Memphis, Eric Beene, the owner of Catch’em Lakes and Walnut Grove Bait and Tackle, has found that the lake and bait shop are busier than ever.
“Fishermen don’t like to sit next to each other anyway,” Mr. Beene said. He said that a local policeman recently came out to observe the social distancing at the lake and was pleased to see people fishing 50 feet apart.
Fun on the Cheep
Some Americans have turned to board games or baking sourdough. But what about something a bit more active — like bird-watching? Bird enthusiasts have long touted their passion as a solitary way to enjoy the outdoors. At least some people appear to be embracing the idea: The Chicago Audubon Society reported that activity in its Facebook group is up 134 percent this month.
It’s an optimal moment to pick up the pastime — billions of birds from the warblers to the flycatchers are now migrating north from South America and the Caribbean as they prepare to nest for the summer. David Ringer, chief network officer of the National Audubon Society, advised New Yorkers to look for scarlet tanagers, birds so brightly colored they “look like they’re emitting their own light.”
Dance Parties and Drive-Ins
It started as a personal need to dance off quarantine angst, but quickly became social: Since the start of New York’s lockdown, Radha Agrawal has been DJing on her roof in Brooklyn while dozens of her neighbors come outside to dance.
Ms. Agrawal is the founder of Daybreaker, an organization that promotes early morning sober dance parties. Amid the pandemic, the group has turned to hosting live-streamed dances. But as cities like Berlin start to loosen their strictures on group gatherings, Daybreaker has envisioned the rollout of socially distanced parties. Attendance will be capped, staff members will be employed to ensure six-foot gaps between dancers, and staffers who used to greet visitors with hugs will instead offer compliments.
For those less inclined to dance, drive-in movie theaters offer a source of retro summer fun. Spencer Folmar is a filmmaker constructing what he believes is the country’s largest drive-in theater, a venue outside Orlando, Fla., set to accommodate 500 cars across five screens. Mr. Folmar recommended local leaders consider using the country’s 305 drive-in theaters for other community gatherings, like church services and school graduations.
As the toll of the coronavirus’s spread became evident, Americans stepped up to stay indoors and flatten the curve. They canceled public and personal events, from festivals to weddings and conferences to commencements. Those cancellations brought their own emotional toll.
But local officials, public health experts and everyday Americans can still work together to salvage some of summer’s joys.