Residents take advantage of towpaths, parks as sites reopen across the state

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A couple takes a walk on one of the trails in the reopened Mercer Meadows Park in Lawrence Township.LEA KAHN/STAFF
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Pedestrians took to the towpath in the Delaware and Raritan State Canal Park that winds its way through Princeton and Lawrence Township as parks reopened on May 2.LEA KAHN/STAFF
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Bicyclists and pedestrians took to the towpath in the Delaware and Raritan State Canal Park that winds its way through Princeton and Lawrence Township on May 2.LEA KAHN/STAFF
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A couple takes a walk on one of the trails in the reopened Mercer Meadows Park in Lawrence Township.LEA KAHN/STAFF
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Pedestrians took to the towpath in the Delaware and Raritan State Canal Park that winds its way through Princeton and Lawrence Township as parks reopened on May 2.LEA KAHN/STAFF
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Bicyclists and pedestrians took to the towpath in the Delaware and Raritan State Canal Park that winds its way through Princeton and Lawrence Township on May 2.LEA KAHN/STAFF

The yellow caution tape was gone and the gates were wide open on May 2, as bicyclists and pedestrians took to the towpath in the Delaware and Raritan State Canal Park that winds its way through Princeton and Lawrence Township.

At the Port Mercer entrance to the state park in Lawrence, the parking lot was full. A family got out of their sport utility vehicle, pulled their bicycles off the bicycle carrier and set out to ride on the towpath.

The scene was the same at the Mercer Meadows Park – also known as the Pole Farm – in Lawrence. Bicycles and pedestrians, abiding by calls for social distancing, shared the trails that run through the Mercer County-owned park.

At the Princeton Battlefield State Park, cars were parked on both sides of Mercer Road. Visitors were sprawled across the nearly 700-acre state park that was the site of the Battle of Princeton in January 1777. All visitors kept their distance from one another.

The Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, the Princeton Battlefield State Park and the Mercer Meadows Park are among the 51 state and county parks that had been closed by Gov. Phil Murphy, effective April 8, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Murphy announced on April 29 that he would lift the ban and reopen the state and county parks and golf courses, effective May 2. Municipal parks, including those in Lawrence and Princeton, were allowed to remain open at each town’s discretion.

While the paths are open for visitors to walk or ride their bicycles, the playgrounds, pavilions, visitor centers and restrooms remain off limits. Picnics, group activities and team sports continue to be banned.

But none of that mattered to Don and Jacquelyn Pillsbury, who spent the afternoon May 2 walking the trails in the Mercer Meadows Park at Keefe and Cold Soil roads in Lawrence. The couple lives in Lawrence.

“We are here because of the gorgeous weather, and the fact that the park is open,” Don Pillsbury said.

Jacquelyn Pillsbury said she had been concerned for the bicyclists who were forced to ride their bicycles on Cold Soil Road, which is a narrow two-lane road. Many are likely novices, and it was not safe for them, she said.

“It was stupid to close the parks,” Don Pillsbury said, pointing to the mental health issues that may have resulted from the stay-at-home order.

“You can’t be isolated. To tell the entire state, you need to practice solitary confinement (is not realistic). COVID is an important concern, but it can’t be the only criteria,” he said, noting that he has family in Bergen County, which was hard hit by COVID-19.

Murphy closed the state and county parks to prevent them from becoming crowded, making it almost impossible to maintain social distancing. Keeping at least six feet apart from other people is one of the strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The New Jersey Outdoor Alliance had sharply criticized Murphy’s decision to close the parks, citing the impacts on mental health stemming from being told to stay home.

But when Murphy announced on April 29 that he was reopening the parks, the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance praised him for “listening to the chorus of common sense and reopening the parks.”

Opening the parks was an easy decision to make, the group said. Outdoor activity is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle and both physical and mental health during the COVID-19 crisis, members said.

“The New Jersey Outdoor Alliance has advocated for the safe and responsible opening of parks since day one of this order,” said Jody McLaughlin, the group’s vice president.

“Nothing is of higher priority to our members and supporters, and we are proud to celebrate our outdoor heritage with this win for common sense reopening,” McLaughlin said.