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Baltimore Mayor Young closes more roads around Lake Montebello to promote exercise during coronavirus pandemic

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young announced Monday that more roads around Lake Montebello in the northeastern section of the city will be closed effective immediately to allow residents to walk and bike safely while adhering to the 6-foot social distancing recommendation in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

“This pilot program expands people’s walking and biking options while helping residents get some much-needed fresh air in an appropriate space,” Mayor Young said in a written statement. “I have tasked the Department of Transportation with finding solutions to allow our residents ways of practicing social distancing in a safe environment.”

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Del. Robbyn Lewis, a Democrat who represents Southeast Baltimore’s District 46 and a self-described transit and mobility activist, applauded the mayor’s announcement.

“This decision shows a willingness to adapt to conditions on the ground and address the mental and physical health needs of the people of this city,” she said. “It shows a willingness to put people’s well-being first, and I hope it’s a signal that similar actions can be taken for other communities. I hope it’s the first and not the last such effort.”

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All roads, including Whitman and Curran drives, around Lake Montebello will be closed to all drivers, and there will be no vehicular access to Lake Montebello Drive. The park entrances at Whitman and Lake Montebello drives will be closed, and the entrance at Chesterfield Avenue may be closed depending on construction.

Motorists will be directed to a detour using E. 32nd Street and Harford Road. Residential streets next to Lake Montebello will be limited to local access only.

According to German Vigil, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, Whitman Drive had been closed to traffic in mid-March, but motorists were permitted to use Curran Drive on the eastern side of the lake.

Last month, Steve Sharkey, director of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, had said there were no plans to close streets in the city. But in the same statement issued by Young’s office Monday, Sharkey acknowledged that the advent of warmer temperatures spurred the decision to open streets to residents and shut them down to motorists.

“As the weather continues to change, DOT is taking action to help maintain and protect the health of our residents,” he said. “This new addition to our pilot program creates more options and opportunities for our residents to exercise as the city works to maintain and protect the health of our residents.”

Asked about the change in stance, Vigil said in an email that officials took time to collect data and community input to assess how such a “Slow Street Program” might be implemented in Baltimore.

“After reviewing this data and feedback,” Vigil wrote, "Director Sharkey and his team were able to identify a few locations in city parks to pilot this program and assess its impact.”

The move is part of a growing nationwide movement to shut off several miles of roads and lanes to allow city residents to get outside and burn off calories and stress caused by being restricted to their homes as political and medical leaders try to stem the COVID-19 tide. Jurisdictions like Denver, Minneapolis and Oakland have closed off several miles of their streets to create more open space for their residents.

Keshia M. Pollack Porter, the associate dean for faculty and a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who specializes in transportation and health, said the benefits of outdoor access for city residents are plentiful.

“We know that physical activity can help to reduce stress, promote mental health in addition to physical health and how people in cities are really constrained in being able to be outside, get fresh air, get exercise, and be six feet apart,” said Pollack Porter, who wrote an opinion piece proposing similar measures that was published April 28 in The Sun. “So it’s great to see that the city has moved in this direction, and I hope it’s the beginning of more and that the effort to sustain goes beyond the pandemic.”

Pollack Porter said closing roads in cities can mean more residents walking into local businesses and spending money there.

“We’ve seen other places with open streets allow more foot traffic to go in front of businesses, allowing people more access to connect with street vendors that they might not otherwise,” she said. “We also know that there’s benefits for social integration, and it allows them to experience their communities in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise.”

But city officials continued to emphasize the need to practice the 6-foot distancing guideline to prevent further infection.

“While we have always welcomed walkers and bicyclists to enjoy Lake Montebello, we must practice social distancing and respect the neighborhood,” Acting Department of Public Works Director Matthew Garbark said. “We are excited to partner with the Department of Transportation on the expansion of their Slow Streets Pilot Program which promotes social distancing in a responsible way.”

The closures around Lake Montebello follow a similar program in Druid Hill Park in which the city closed a lane of parking on Swan Drive where it intersected with Beechwood Drive on the western side of Druid Lake and ran along Swan and East drives before ending at the intersection of East Drive and Red Road near the park’s tennis courts.

While the closures around Lake Montebello and Druid Lake are positive steps, Lewis, the Maryland delegate, cited Winston Churchill’s quote “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

“I hope this is like the first drop on the stone and that we just wear away at the predominance and pervasive ubiquity of cars in our city,” she said. “Around the world, people are finding that their air quality has improved because people are driving less. I hope we can see some of that. … I think the fact that the mayor has seen the light means that the time is right, and I really hope that our communities who are hungry for safe and open space, I hope that hunger is going to be satisfied for all communities soon.”

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