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At Lake Merritt, Residents Worry About Crowds — And Public Shaming

Julia Llinas Goodman
Oakland officials have put up signs about social distancing all over Lake Merritt.

Since shelter in place began, health officials around the Bay Area have struggled to deal with packed parks and beaches. And then there are the crowds at Lake Merritt.

Click the play button above to listen to the story.

City officials say Oakland’s crown jewel will need to close if more people don’t start following social distancing guidelines.

NextDoor.com is also abuzz with people worried about the crowds at Lake Merritt.

“I’ve seen lots of people out picnicking — kids, families, not wearing masks,” says Carl Johnson.

Credit Julia Llinas Goodman / KALW
Graffiti at Lake Merritt, where some people have not been following health guidelines.

“I feel like I’m getting a lot more exercise because I’m constantly jumping out of the way of people,” comments Leslie Rose.

“It’s annoying to have somebody huffing and puffing from running, and they’re a foot away from me,” Lexine Alpert says. “The last time I walked the lake, that happened at least 12 times, and I told my friends, ‘This is the last time I’m coming here.’”

From Disneyland To Lifeline 

Downtown Oakland resident Christina Beach is frustrated by some of the discussions on NextDoor. As a kid, she remembers trips to Fairyland, the amusement park at Lake Merritt. It felt like Disneyland. She says now, she lives a five-minute walk away, and the lake feels more like a lifeline.

Credit Christina Beach
Christina Beach has long found refuge at Lake Merritt. She took this photo before the pandemic.

"So I basically have to go escape to the lake just to have a refuge from the noise and to get some peace of mind."

"I live in a small studio apartment, and I’ve got construction going on on every single block, on each side," Beach says. “So I basically have to go escape to the lake just to have a refuge from the noise and to get some peace of mind.”

Beach isn’t the only one escaping to the lake during shelter-in-place. She says the lake is so busy, every day feels like Sunday. And she is worried about contracting the virus.

“I’m not squeamish, but it kind of freaks me out when [people] jog too closely, sweating and panting,” she explains.

But Beach is also nervous about something else. A few weeks ago she was at a coffee shop near the lake when she noticed a cop standing in line. 

“A woman came up to him and said, ‘Did you see all the thousands of people that were at the lake this weekend?’” says Beach. “And he said, ‘No.’ ‘Oh, yes, there were tons of them. None of them were wearing facemasks.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, they’re probably just going to let off some steam. They’ve been cooped up for a long time.’”

'The Lake Is For Everyone'

Beach says it seems like people are hyper-focused on shaming others. 

She sees the lake as a gathering place for different communities. And she worries that all these rules and citizen-policing are making people feel unwelcome.

“The lake is for everyone,” Beach says. “I’m just frustrated that people aren’t thinking of positive solutions that preserve what the lake is, instead of thinking about ways to make it a private front yard.”

The New Public Space Etiquette

Credit Julia Llinas Goodman / KALW
A Saturday afternoon at Lake Merritt.

People are struggling with different ideas about how to behave in public space, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. 

She says it can be easy to assume other people are not following the rules, but often judgment is neither productive nor informed by facts. For example, she says, some people might have had a past experience that makes them uncomfortable wearing a mask, or a skin condition that makes a mask difficult to wear. 

Simon-Thomas’ advice is to approach strangers in shared public spaces with curiosity and ask questions when it doesn’t put our own safety at risk. 

“If I walk by a gathering at Lake Merritt, I don’t know if those four people all actually live together. But somehow, it looks like they’re all having a lot of fun and that they’re breaking the rules. I’m in a state of vigilance. And that makes me see them as being perpetrators of harm,” she says. “It’s just very easy to kind of place blame or lash out in a way that isn’t necessarily constructive or appropriate given the information at hand.” 

Simon-Thomas says instead of public shaming each other, it would be better for us to take a deep breath, and assume at some level that the people around us are reasonable and that they have an explanation for their behavior. 

The City Responds 

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
Oakland officials have banned vendors from city parks, forcing the food trucks by Lake Merritt out.

Public officials, however, have a different kind of responsibility, and city leaders in Oakland are still figuring out the best way to respond to the gatherings at Lake Merritt. 

Police say they aren’t making arrests or citing people for physical distancing violations. But Oakland has closed off parking around the lake on weekends and issued dozens of citations for those infractions. And officials have also banned vendors from city parks. 

Unequal Park Access 

Jason Corburn, who directs the Center for Global Healthy Cities at UC Berkeley, says Oakland should be encouraging people to visit parks right now. 

“The city of Oakland should not be discouraging by locking up parking lots, and forcing people to only go to one space or another,” Corburn says. “It’s a terrible policy.”

He says limiting access to parks will unequally impact low-income residents, who are disproportionately people of color.

“Low-income residents are often living in smaller living quarters with no backyard, no front yard, no balcony, no way to get outside,” Corburn explains. “They may be having to stay inside in an unhealthy home, that may have toxic mold or lead, or other things that we’re not addressing.”

Experts say that the virus is more likely to spread in indoor spaces than outside, in places like parks. So getting outdoors might be the healthiest option. But, Corburn says, not everybody lives near a well-maintained park. And larger, more desirable parks tend to be located in wealthier neighborhoods.

"To restrict people about where they can go to parks is regressive, and discriminatory, and probably racist."

“Just because you live near the beach or a beautiful regional park doesn’t mean that you should be the only people to have access to that,” Corburn says. “To restrict people about where they can go to parks is regressive, and discriminatory, and probably racist.”

A Flashpoint 

Lake Merritt has long been a flashpoint for debates about who gets to access public space. In 2018, a white woman called the police to report two black men grilling at the lake. The men say she was targeting them because of their race.

Oakland teacher Logan McWilliams says the incident was part of a pattern.

“When the Barbecue Becky situation happened, it really made me realize that I had just become too accustomed to discrimination and racism,” she explains.

In response, McWilliams started an event called BBQ’n While Black, where black people gathered at the lake as a way of claiming their right to be there.

“It made national news,” McWilliams says. “And it became a force within the city around what happens when we come together in the spirit of unity and love.”

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
People spend the day at Lake Merritt. Oakland city leaders have worried about the crowds and people not wearing masks.

Social Distancing Complaints Rise

But issues around policing of public space haven’t gone away. And the pandemic has only added new concerns.

The Alameda County sheriff’s department has received over three thousand complaints about physical distancing violations. And the agency says most of those complaints are coming from Oakland. That doesn’t sit right with McWilliams.

“I think that people that are calling to complain are not necessarily concerned about health and safety,” she says, “so much as they are concerned about black and brown bodies that they’re uncomfortable with being around.”

McWilliams says the city shouldn’t rely on policing to get people to follow the rules. On the other hand — as much as she doesn’t want to see increased police enforcement — she worries about people not following the guidelines and then getting COVID-19.

“Social distancing is just necessary at this time, especially for people of color,” McWilliams says. “And black people even more so, because we are contracting it and dying from it at much larger proportions than other members of the community.”

"Over-policing just isn't the answer, period."

McWilliams does support actions like reducing opening hours at the lake, or closing off sections at certain times. She says, without any restrictions, people could get sick.

“Over-policing just isn’t the answer, period,” McWilliams says. “But some changes do need to happen so that people can be safe.”

The New Social Contract 

Activist concerns about the city’s response aren’t limited to Lake Merritt. Cat Brooks is co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. She says she’s worried about the inaction she’s seeing from the city on many fronts. 

“The way in which the city of Oakland has responded to this crisis — it’s been irresponsible, non-strategic, and not anywhere near the size and scale that we need,” Brooks says. “I’m so frustrated with their lack of getting unhoused people into hotels, and the lack of testing centers, and the lack of COVID survival kits.”

Brooks worries that without more proactive steps to help people protect themselves, increased policing could start to seem like the only option.

“My concern is that the response to the lack of action will be to utilize more law enforcement,” she says. “We need to figure out what the new social contract is in times of COVID, and then we need to ensure that we’re not using law enforcement to enforce that new social contract.”

'Give The Lake A Break'

Oakland officials say they’re trying to keep parks open and limit the crowds. The city has plastered signs about social distancing around the lake. Mayor Libby Schaaf launched the hashtag #GiveTheLakeABreak to implore residents not to crowd in large groups.

Council Member Nikki Fortunato Bas, whose district borders Lake Merritt, says residents should feel welcome in city parks. But, she says, too many people aren’t keeping a six-foot distance, and many don’t wear masks. She says the city needs to do more to make sure people understand the rules.

“There’s a lot more that we need to be doing to make sure we’re reaching as many people as possible,” Bas says. “Not only through signage, but through social media, through radio, through TV.”

Park ambassadors — wearing bright orange t-shirts that say COVID-19 — now patrol Lake Merritt to remind people about the rules and hand out face masks.

“We really have to work together to make sure that we’re all contributing to limiting the spread,” Bas says. “It is a lot to ask because it’s been such a long time. But I think a lot’s also on the line in terms of our lives, our livelihoods.”

Stay Home, Flatten The Curve — And Include Everyone 

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, says social media and publicity campaigns can be an effective way to encourage people to adjust their behavior.

Phrases like “Flatten the Curve” have been helpful, though it’s unclear if “Give The Lake A Break” will reach that kind of popularity. “Stay Home” is direct, but not always a possible, or healthy, rule to abide by when exercise and outdoor spaces are so important.

Simon-Thomas says what’s important is that the messages are inclusive, inviting, and help people feel like they’re a part of a team.

“Making a message so complicated that people can’t really figure out what they’re supposed to do is also a mistake,” she says. “Leaders can make things simple, clear, and transparent.”

If parking restrictions and education fail to persuade people, Mayor Schaaf has said it could be necessary to ramp up enforcement — or even close down the lake.

With so many competing concerns about Lake Merritt, a lot of people are just avoiding it altogether. 

The Stomping Ground, The Walking Delights 

Credit Courtesy of Katie Noonan
Golden Gate Audubon naturalist Hilary Power leads a socially distanced bird walk on Earth Day.

But then there are the people like Hilary Powers, a bird watcher who still depends on the old lagoon known as Lake Merritt for joy. 

She’s been playing games online and making six-legged creatures made out of wool to put on her hat. She wears homemade masks. She says Lake Merritt is a private stomping ground for everyone who lives nearby. 

“When I go stir crazy, that’s where I go,” she says. “You need a place to go that is different from the four walls of your apartment.” 

She’s been coming to Lake Merritt since the early 90s and has no plans to stop now. 

"There is so much good in the world, even now."

“There is so much good in the world, even now,” she says. “People twinkle eyes at each other over their masks.” 

A young girl in a purple cloak and a pink helmet walks past. 

“Isn’t that just a walking delight?” Powers says. 

But the pandemic has also changed some things for her. She’s 76 years old, and that makes her vulnerable to COVID-19. She uses binoculars instead of a telescope. 

Credit Holly J. McDede / KALW
The birds of Lake Merritt socially distance

“You can’t socially distance with a scope. A telescope wants people to look through it,” she explains. “Binoculars are monogamous. Scopes are polygamous, they want to be looked at by as many people as possible.”

But, she says, the birds haven’t gone anywhere. During a socially distanced bird walk, she even stumbled upon a duck she describes as both rare and amazing. The bird watchers observed from a distance. 

During a walk, she passes a playground where kids are playing, which is prohibited because of COVID-19. She says it’s not her place to judge.

Credit Courtesy of Katie Noonan
Lake Merritt Institute masked Clean Lake Volunteers.

“Somebody put up caution tape, and someone else took it down, and it stayed down,” Powers says. “People are people, you can't control the world. It's really tough if you start worrying about stuff and trying to appoint yourself captain of the universe. You can get really unhappy really quick.” 

For other regulars like Christina Beach, a trip to Lake Merritt is like a kind of meditation. She says there are ways to go outside and stay safe.

A Middle Ground 

A couple of times a day, Beach puts on a mask and braves a walk out of her apartment to the lake. Sometimes joggers get too close, but she has an escape plan for that. She freezes, ducks, and then gets out of the way.

“They’re going to just keep going or they’re going to just swiftly go by. It’s definitely our responsibility to make ourselves safe,” she says.

And often she plops down on a park bench and watches the community in motion — from a distance.

“Without fail, every time I walk around the lake, I have a feeling of great appreciation for living in Oakland,” Beach says.

For Beach and others, the lake can be both soothing and mellow, and kind of a minefield. But it’s one that she — and so many others — will navigate for the sake of getting outside.

Ozzy Llinas Goodman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Berkeley. Their reporting interests include the uses and policing of public space, underground communities and solidarity economies, and other topics related to human movement, urban space, and civil rights.