As summer progresses, social distancing in San Francisco parks proves challenging

Visitors sit inside circles designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus at Dolores Park in San Francisco.
Visitors sit inside circles designed to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus by encouraging social distancing at Dolores Park in San Francisco.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The chalk circles that appeared in four San Francisco parks in late May weren’t an art installation or giant checkerboard game: The city’s parks and recreation team drew the circles 10 feet in diameter in the grass as boundaries, intended to encourage social distancing.

But as weeks pass and the temperatures rise, more people are naturally flocking to the parks. The circles are filling up fast and social distancing is proving difficult.

Last weekend, crowds gathered at Mission Dolores Park in the Mission District to enjoy the sunny weather.


“People are trying to be respectful and responsible and trying to stay in the circles, but there can be too many people in the circles — some people are bursting out of them,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease doctor at UC San Francisco.

In fact, the circles could be creating a greater health hazard, he said: “They might actually be a disservice if they are making people come together in an artificial way.”

Chin-Hong said it can be a challenge to resist sharing snacks. “You have your delicious Trader Joe’s mango slices, you’re not going to take a slice of mango, walk away, eat it alone and come back — it’s not human nature.”

Michael Piazza, a San Francisco based-photographer who was at Dolores Park over the weekend, said, “The biggest issue is masks.” He said many people weren’t wearing them. “People want to talk with their friends and enjoy eating and drinking together,” he said.

But San Francisco residents are taking COVID-19 seriously, Piazza said: “We are very mindful of the risks, but if the parks are open, people will want to visit them with their friends.”

Removing masks in crowded parks can be risky. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wearing a mask is “most essential when social distancing is difficult,” and that includes in parks and on hikes.


“Parks are critical to our mental and physical health — benefits that are too important to lose,” Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the city’s parks department, said in a statement.

“Wear your mask,” he added. “Even if you know the people around you. Even if it’s not crowded. Do it so parks can stay open for everyone.”

As of Tuesday, San Francisco County has recorded 6,989 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 61 people have died.