Tumamoc Hill will reopen to walkers Memorial Day, more than two months after it was closed because of COVID-19, but with a tightened set of guidelines on how people can use it.
For social distancing, hill walkers will be asked to limit group sizes to three. They will be expected to keep at least 6 feet from other persons and groups.
They will be expected to wear masks to help prevent the spread of the virus.
And, the hours of 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., prime time for summer walkers, will be limited to those over age 65, others with pre-existing health conditions or otherwise considered more vulnerable to the disease than average persons.
Walkers will also be asked to use hand-sanitizing stations along the road, and to not touch the gate at the hilltop — a longstanding tradition for many walkers.
“The community, all of us, need a connection, but that very act of coming together creates a real, significant public health threat given the virus,” said Ben Wilder, director of the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory, which has conducted groundbreaking research since 1903 on the hill’s desert plants. “It’s kind of an inherent paradox.
“The greatest thing we want to do is to allow the community to get back their connection to Tumamoc. But we have to do it in a way that’s cautious. It’s not going to be like in the way of the past,” Wilder said.
Over the past few decades, the hill, located on West Anklam Road just west of Silverbell Road, has become one of the Tucson area’s favorite gathering places. A haven for exercise freaks and strollers alike, it leads walkers up a gradual, 1.45-mile climb featuring numerous switchbacks to a spot right below the hilltop, where signs tell walkers to stop.
From predawn hours until 10 p.m., up to 2,000 people a day commonly walked past the desert lab, which lies about halfway up the road. Before the pandemic, they were limited only by requirements not to leave the road, not to ride bikes or other vehicles, and not to bring pets.
But the university closed the road March 18, as the coronavirus was first erupting in the Tucson area. Wilder and other UA officials said at the time they couldn’t insure walkers’ safety, given their tendency to walk close together and in large groups.
That’s why the desert lab now is limiting walkers to groups of three, when the hill reopens Monday, May 25, Wilder said.
“If you are in a larger group than that, it’s very hard to maintain that distance from everybody,” he said of the commonly held 6-foot social distancing standard.
The hill is not reopening this Saturday, May 16, when Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order expires. The delay will give authorities time to paint arrows showing intervals of 10 feet as benchmarks to guide walkers, and to put up new signs informing walkers of the guidelines.
Tumamoc officials will also work with Cream Design and Print, a local print shop, to make a series of new, special Tumamoc Hill masks “with a super cool design,” to be sold for somewhere around $15, Wilder said.
Some of the proceeds will go to the desert lab for its reopening outreach efforts, he said.
Asked why he thinks it’s safe to reopen at a time of intense public debate over safe levels of exposure, Wilder replied, “Maybe the best way to answer that is that until there is a vaccine it is not going to be safe. It is an inherent risk all of us are facing in all of our lives.
“We specifically are balancing the importance of our community to have access to outdoor recreation and mental health from that, with public health,” he said, noting that some health data shows the risk of COVID-19 infection is lower outdoors.
“We all have to sacrifice greatly. For many, Tumamoc is a large part of that sacrifice. We recognize all the turmoil that’s going on now. That’s one reason many people want to be on the hill.”
For now, the new guidelines for walkers will have no enforcement, Wilder said.
But “we’ll be monitoring, and if things go sideways and things aren’t totally safe, we’ll close the hill again,” he said.
He noted that during the closure, the number of walkers dropped to less than 100 per day, or less than 5% of the normal total, although that number has topped 100 in the past week or so.
“That gives me a lot of hope not just for us at Tumamoc but as a community, as we look ahead and see what the next weeks and months bring us,” Wilder said. “We have to listen and care and listen to science.
“The anchors of Tumamoc are culture, community and science,” he said. “If we can embody those, the reopening can lead the way, in the best way, to reopen our society and our city.”