British Columbia

Abuse and threats part of daily life for Vancouver park rangers amid pandemic

Nicole Setterlund and her fellow rangers have been given the thankless task of trying to encourage park users to practise physical distancing and abide by new park rules.

Ranger Nicole Setterlund says physical distancing rules are bringing out the worst in some park-goers

Park Ranger Nicole Setterlund speaks to cyclists at Stanley Park in Vancouver on Wednesday. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Nicole Setterlund realized working conditions at her job as a Vancouver park ranger had truly taken a turn for the worse a few days ago when a man called her a "fat bitch."

He had been riding his bike on the Stanley Park seawall — something temporarily banned due to the popularity of the seaside path among those seeking respite from self-isolation — and Setterlund had simply asked him to stop. 

That kind of hostility is increasingly common, says Setterlund, as she and her colleagues find themselves acting as de facto coronavirus deputies, tasked with the thankless chore of reminding park-goers to maintain physical distance.

"Mostly when you speak to people and remind them about two metres or six feet, they're pretty good about it," she said.

Vancouver's seawall has been extremely popular among those seeking respite from self-isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"But oftentimes you have people who are very harsh and awful to you because they either don't believe what's going on or they have the attitude like, 'Oh, [infection] can't happen to me.'"

Vancouver's superintendent of park rangers says his staff catch flak from some park users in "normal times," but lately it's been worse, including one ranger who was spat on.

"There's been a number of occasions where park rangers have been verbally abused and a couple areas where they've been threatened," says Uultsje Dejong.

"A certain segment of society feels like the rules don't apply to them."

Choke points and Lance Armstrong wannabes

Dejong says choke points "where paths narrow and intersect" are where most of the social distancing issues are popping up. 

As well, now that the roads through Stanley Park are closed to vehicles, some cyclists have taken it as a cue to channel their inner Lance Armstrong, with disastrous results. 

Park ranger Nicole Setterlund, pictured in Vancouver’s Stanley Park on Wednesday, said one park-goer told her it was a ranger's job to be harassed. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"They seem to be doing laps because we can hear them counting and trying to do it as fast as they can. And so we've had a couple of injuries of cyclists in the park," he said.

"One broke their leg and another broke their arm, so it was unfortunate."

Dejong says the number of rangers on duty has doubled in response to the crowds and new park rules aimed at supporting physical distancing. 

No enforcement powers

As far as powers of enforcement go, he says they don't really have any, other than to ask nicely.

"We do our utmost to be respectful of everyone and ask them to abide by the guidelines that are set out by Dr. Henry," he said. "We ask them and we ask the people around them to comply, but we have no legal authority to enforce it."

Setterlund and her patrol partner have observed three general types who seem to react the worst when approached — people under 20 who show a sense of entitlement, those playing sports, and regular park users whose daily routines have been upended by the COVID-19 changes.

On the flip side is the woman who lodged a formal complaint with Setterlund's boss claiming she wasn't doing a good enough job enforcing social distance.

"I explained to her that we're actually pretty limited in enforcement ... and that people scream at you and harass you," said Setterlund. "And then she told me that it was my job to get harassed."

Members of the Vancouver Park Board's champions program use hula hoops to demonstrate physical distancing. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Living through a pandemic is stressful and frustrating, but Setterlund would like people to realize it's the same for park rangers who are just trying to do a job in the service of keeping the parks open so everyone can enjoy them.

"We're also people who live and work and experience life in Vancouver," she said.

"It's hard to be your punching bag when we're just essential workers trying to help the city." 

With files from Ben Mussett