Press Club

Making Room: Please Give Us Space for Social Distancing

Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

We are now in Week 4 of social distancing. Schools are closed. Most stores are closed or pick-up only. Arlingtonians who are not fortunate enough to be teleworking are faced with furloughs, layoffs, or difficult travel to essential work. Arlington has even closed parks, fields, courts, and playgrounds.

These are difficult changes that are intended to flatten the curve of coronavirus infections.

But as we prepare to stay at home until June 10, as the governor has ordered, we will need outlets for safe outdoor exercise. About half of Arlington County residents do not have a yard. Our public and private spaces are incredibly limited.

The sidewalk is nearly all that is available to us to get exercise and fresh air, which is critical for a lasting commitment to social distancing. Arlington County even agrees that individual outdoor exercise is a legitimate activity.

Anyone who has tried to go for a walk in the past few weeks can plainly see that our neighborhoods were not built for social distancing. None of our sidewalks are wide enough for people to pass with 6 feet of distance. But while you might blame density for the crowded conditions, the problem lies in the 30 feet of pavement we have devoted to cars.

With all that has changed about our lives, our deference to cars has remained. Even as the streets have emptied of commuters, shoppers, and visitors, our roads remain unchanged. Arlington residents have made voluntarily limited our freedom of movement. We need to expect the same for cars.

Across the country, cities are blocking of parkways and widening sidewalks. Arlington County needs to make our community safer for outdoor recreation by repurposing street space. Instead of privileging cars, we need to create priority for walkers, joggers, and cyclists. This is a critical issue of public health. For social distancing to be successful, we need to give people opportunities to go outside.

You don’t even have to take it from me. Dan Rather agrees (although we shouldn’t wait until later).

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