COVID-19 State Orders and Physical Activity Access

Jamie Chriqui headshot.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought radical changes to Illinois residents used to outdoor recreation. State parks shut down, access was cut to Chicago’s Lakefront Trail and runners, bikers and walkers had to contend with an influx of people seeking an outdoor escape from shelter-in-place orders.

A new evaluation effort from the Physical Activity Policy Research and Evaluation Network (PAPREN) Coordinating Center, a CDC-funded initiative co-led by the University of Massachusetts Medical School and the UIC School of Public Health’s Policy, Practice and Prevention Research Center, is examining how state orders and guidances impacted access to recreation and physical activity during the pandemic’s first 6 months.

“As we move into the potential next wave of COVID, there are important lessons to be learned for decision makers to make physical activity spaces more accessible for people,” said Jamie Chriqui, PhD, professor of health policy and administration and co-principal investigator of PAPREN.

Working with Sandy Slater, PhD in Health Policy and Administration ‘05, and two UIC Chancellor’s Undergraduate Research Awardees, including Daniel Antonio, BA in Public Health student, the initiative is compiling all relevant documents from the 50 states and the District of Columbia, coding the materials, including the responsible agencies such as public health, parks/natural resources, and public works; specific physical activity locations such as parks, green spaces, and gyms and whether they are fully or partially open or closed; and pandemic-related signage and messaging.

Once data collection and coding are complete, Chriqui and Slater aim to produce a manuscript, policy brief and webinar that seek to answer a few core questions. First, they will highlight how orders classified physical activity as an essential activity and the extent to which outdoor or indoor activity was inhibited. While orders may have been well-intended, restrictions could lead to unintended consequences from a public health and chronic disease perspective.

Second, the study will highlight variability in what physical activities or locations are considered essential. Local examples in Chicago include the Lakefront Trail closure limiting activity while the creation of pedestrian-oriented open streets helps to facilitate recreation.

Finally, Chriqui aims to connect evaluation results with Google trend data on people’s driving, walking and biking activity to gauge how behaviors changed across states.

“As far as we know, we’re the only group compiling this information to evaluate the physical activity orientation of these COVID orders,” Chriqui said. “This will provide some really useful information for advocates in this space going forward.”

2020 Healthviews Magazine