It’s been called one of the most popular day hikes in America, and has become an overrun destination during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, Breakneck Ridge and surrounding trails have been closed ahead of a weekend that could have seen thousands more descend upon Putnam County’s Cold Spring area. WAMC”S Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne reports.
Richard Shea is Philipstown Town Supervisor.
“It was the worst we’ve ever seen it,” Shea says. “It was more intense than on Fourth of July. Last weekend surpassed any numbers we’ve ever seen.”
“People just not social distancing, groups of 20 or more gathering and completely flaunting all the laws and the efforts that have been put forth to try to stem the tide of the spread of this disease,” says Shea.
Philipstown includes the Hudson River Villages of Cold Spring and Nelsonville and the hamlet of Garrison.
“We’re a town of about 9,800 people, 9,851. Last weekend, we’re estimating we had about 6,000 people visit the town,” Shea says. “So the impact of that is just so overwhelming in a normal time but now it makes trying to observe social distancing and all the protocols that have been established virtually impossible.”
Shea says he reached out to the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation on numerous occasions, and the state did implement parking restrictions and the like but the problem, he says, is there is no enforcement to back up any restrictions.
“We did have a meeting with Erik Kulleseid, who is the commissioner of New York State Parks. He came down; he saw some of what was going on, but last weekend, I think, was a tipping point where even his own staff was really crying out to the state to say, look, we can’t manage this anymore; this is an overwhelming situation where you have this number of visitors and, again, not observing the social distancing, not even able to because some of the trails are single track," Shea says. "And when you talk about an area like Breakneck that’s so confined, and you get 3,000 people on one trail, it’s not a good situation.”
Shea says the town tried to take matters into its own hands, putting up signs and using local law enforcement, but overstepped at one point.
“Initially, we put up our own barriers to try to block off parking, even on state property,” Shea says. “Those were summarily removed. DOT threatened us, essentially saying, look, you don’t have the right to do this. We’re taking your barriers. They did take them and remove them.”
So now, per the state Parks Department website, multiple trails in Hudson Highlands State Park are temporarily closed, including all trails leading to Breakneck Ridge and Mt. Taurus. A spokesman, in an emailed statement, says, “The new measures taken continue density reduction strategies implemented at Hudson Highlands State Park and parks across the state. We are in regular communication with local governments and park stakeholders, and will continue to take and [sic] needed steps to address the health and safety of visitors and staff.”
“We have one local food store. All these people come, and I know it’s not intentional but the result of that is they come down from hiking, they’re hungry, they’re thirsty, and they descend on Foodtown, and it’s just not a store that can handle that many visitors, and again, many of them just not observing any sort of the established protocols of wearing masks or social distancing,” Shea says.
State Parks has also temporarily closed trails just over Philipstown’s southern border with Westchester County — Anthony's Nose and the Appalachian Trail connector – along with trails north of Philipstown in Dutchess County — Notch Trail, for one.
Shea says he’s gone into Foodtown first thing Monday morning and been met with essentially empty shelves. He says the influx of visitors in recent weeks has impacted the ability of local residents to secure food.
“Any other time, people here welcome visitors. Businesses thrive because of that. This community is essentially a tourist community but, having said that, we do need to manage it, especially now, with the outbreak of COVID,” says Shea. “Some of the programs we’ve undertaken here in Philipstown is we had a generous donation from a local family of $100,000, which enabled us to reach out to needy people right now. And we bought Foodtown cards, gift cards. We’ve spent $40,000 of that on Foodtown gift cards for direct food assistance for families in need. We’ve also branched out into Beacon. We bought Key Food cards for Beacon. We’re partnering with organizations up in Beacon. We’ve reached out to Newburgh. We’re in Newburgh; we’re in Carmel with Second Chance Foods. And just this week we’ve had commitments again for over $100,000 in donations that we didn’t have to work too hard to get.”
When the pandemic subsides, Shea expects the crowds will resume, and he wants to see a long-term plan for balancing recreation and preservation.
“There needs to be a long-term plan for how they’re going to manage the crowds, how they’re going to do law enforcement and how they’re going to move people around to different sections of the park so they don’t wear out just specific trails like the Breakneck Trail or the Washburn Trail here in Philipstown,” Shea says.
As of Thursday, Putnam County reported 900 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths.