The COVID-19 pandemic has closed off access to many venues and facilities, but area outdoor parks — particularly the bike and hike trails — remain open and are being heavily utilized.

For the most part, activities that are happening in the parks are walking, running and bicycling. Basketball courts and playgrounds are blocked off and in some cases, the basketball hoops have been removed. One difference between two communities: In Stow, the tennis courts have been locked up, but the tennis courts are still open at city-owned parks in Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge.

"Everyone is reminded to adhere to social distancing guidelines [on the tennis courts]," added Cuyahoga Falls city spokesperson Kelli Crawford-Smith.

Municipal and park system leaders throughout the region said most people who are enjoying the spring weather by taking a hike or a bicycle ride are adhering to the social distancing guidelines issued by county and state health officials.

There are, however, reports of people gathering in groups and not practicing the proper spacing, and police officers and park rangers are intervening to disperse those who are congregating.

Crawford-Smith said officials have received complaints about kids playing basketball and large hiking groups not following physical distancing guidelines. At the same time, she emphasized many people are adhering to the proper protocols.

"Whether it's people walking or running individually or friends using the parking lots to meet up outside and sit in chairs at a distance of greater than 6 feet from each other, we want to thank all the residents who have been using the park system in a responsible manner," said Crawford-Smith, who noted Water Works Park is a popular destination.

While Hudson city spokesperson Jody Roberts said municipal officials are "pleased that the majority of" people visiting the parks are adhering to proper social distancing, she did note there have been some problems.

A few people who "are ignoring the signs, removing our caution tape and letting their children play on the playground equipment," she said. Other issues are when families are sometimes walking "five astride" on the trails, it forces other walkers to get too close to them if they wish to pass them or when separate groups of people are too close to one another in the pavilions. Hudson Springs Park is the most used city park, according to Roberts.

The Summit County Sheriff’s Department is ramping up its enforcement efforts with deputies patrolling local parks "frequently" to make sure visitors "are complying with proper social distancing guidelines."

In a post on Facebook Wednesday, the sheriff’s office reported there were still some people "congregating in tight groups and engaging in closeup conversation in public parks and ball fields. This is very irresponsible."

Summit Metro Parks on Thursday announced it’s closing all observation decks and fishing docks and half of the main parking lot at Gorge Metro Park.

Linda Nahrstedt, Stow’s director of parks and recreation, said she’s received reports of a lot of people going to city parks, but not necessarily in large groups.

"Mostly, it’s the trails that are busy, especially the hike & bike trail that runs from Young Road West to Hudson and is on the southern-most edge of Silver Springs Park," said Nahrstedt.

Don Cooper, Director of Administration for the city of Tallmadge, said the city’s received a few complaints about people congregating in the city and one such complaint for Lions Park.

"When a complaint has been received and doing so was thought necessary and workload allows, a police officer has been dispatched to inform those gathered of the public health order and asked them to disperse," said Cooper. "In all cases, those involved have done so.

Pamela Barnes, community engagement supervisor and public information officer for the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, said the parking lots have sometimes been full at some of their parks. She said some parks are experiencing such high attendance that visitors might "think it was the Fourth of July."

Barnes said her office has been telling visitors that if the parking lot at one park is crowded, they should consider trying to find another site that is less crowded.

Stephanie Walton, chief of marketing and communications for Summit Metro Parks, agreed.

"Visitation at Summit Metro Parks locations is significantly higher than typical levels for this time of year, and in addition to practicing social distancing, we are encouraging visitors to avoid high-traffic areas," said Walton, who added group sports are prohibited in the Metro Parks.

Christine Craycroft, executive director for the Portage Park District, said her facilities are also seeing more use.

"Our parks have been getting more use, especially on warmer, sunnier days … by individuals and small groups appearing to be families," said Craycroft. "The busiest Portage Park District trail is the Portage Hike and Bike Trail, a 10[-foot] wide multipurpose trail between Kent and Ravenna."

Cleveland Metroparks said they are closing several roads to motorists so that park users have more space for bicycling, hiking and running.

"Cleveland Metroparks has experienced a surge of park visitors over the past several weeks," said Brian M. Zimmerman, Cleveland Metroparks CEO. "These additional steps will effectively turn some of our roads into 20-foot-wide trails to encourage people to spread out and provide proper distance between other park users."

Sagamore Hills Trustee Chairman Dave DePasquale said there were people in the township’s 53-acre park when he visited on a recent sunny day, but noted he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.

"People are keeping their distance from each other," said DePasquale.

Macedonia is following all of the state and county guidelines about social distancing, said Mayor Nick Molnar and noted he has not heard about any problems in the city’s parks.

Aurora Mayor Ann Womer Benjamin said she knows people want to get outside to enjoy the nice weather and therefore supports keeping the parks open. She’s been reminding residents about maintaining social distancing.

"There have been occasional reports of too many people out using the parks," said Womer Benjamin, who suggested that people go to a different park if they find one is particularly busy.

Twinsburg Parks and Recreation Director Derek Schroeder said the city’s had a couple calls "here and there" about gatherings that are too large and they’ve sent the police out to break up the get-together.

What the public can do if they see violations

Crawford-Smith said the public can call the Cuyahoga Falls police’s non-emergency number at 330-928-2181 for complaints about people congregating in city parks and rangers for people gathering in the Metro Parks.

Roberts said complaints about large groups or closed areas being accessed should be directed to the Hudson Police Department’s non-emergency number at 330-342-1800. Nahrstedt also advised residents to call Stow police’s non-emergency number at 330-689-5700.

City officials emphasized residents should not call 911 for these types of complaints.

Walton said park visitors should not try to disperse a group on their own and noted that both park rangers and police officers are patrolling the Metro Parks sites to remind visitors about the distancing rules.

Craycroft said park attendees should avoid large groups and can ask a contingent of people to "move aside to allow safe distancing to pass." She noted park users can call 330-297-7728 or email admin@portageparkdistrict.org to report any problems they witness.

Schroeder also noted residents can help city leaders combat problems in the parks.

"If [residents] could let us know if they see that because we can't always see it," said Schroeder.

Cooper said if people are working on the Freedom Trail, they can contact a park ranger. He added he felt "reminding others of the guidelines is in everyone’s best interest …if a problem arises, the police can always be summoned."

Being outdoors is beneficial to an individual’s health

Even with fewer options for activities, health experts say spending time outdoors is beneficial to a person’s physical and mental health. Dr. Joseph Zarconi, NEOMED chair of Internal Medicine, said going outside during the COVID-19 pandemic is "absolutely a good thing to do and in fact, recommended." Since the virus is transmitted through the air, "it’s mitigated outdoors compared to indoors," said Zarconi.

Instead of using the term "social distancing," Zarconi said he would prefer to label the practice "physical distancing with social connections."

"I think the best thing to do is keep physical distance while trying to sustain our social connectedness because … that is critically important for our own mental health," said Zarconi. "If we get isolated from others, it's a risk factor."

Tips for park users

Here are some tips offered by city and park officials that park visitors should follow:

• Stay home if you are sick or have symptoms;

• Follow CDC guidelines on hygiene: wash your hands frequently, carry and use hand sanitizer, and cover your cough or sneeze;

• Maintain at least 6 feet from others. Avoid congregating in parking lots or at points of interest. Keep that distance as you walk, bike or hike;

• Warn other trail users of your presence and as you pass to allow proper distance and step off trails to allow others to pass, keeping minimum recommended distances at all times. Signal your presence with your voice, bell or horn.

• Drinking fountains are off - bring your own water bottle;

• Note that trail and park users may find public restrooms closed — be prepared before you leave and time outings so that you are not dependent on public restrooms;

• Use your own trash bag and carry out your trash if you can;

• Avoid picnic tables, railings and exercise equipment; and

• Bypass busy areas in favor of quieter parks.

Editor’s note: Record-Courier reporter Krista Kano and reporter Jeff Saunders contributed to this story.

Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, pkeren@recordpub.com, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.