When coronavirus restrictions were at their most stringent, roads emptied — along with restaurants, gyms and most other places people congregate. What stayed open, though, were sidewalks, where walkers, joggers and cyclists hit the trail in numbers some Rio Grande Valley municipalities describe as unprecedented.
Representatives from the city of Mission say they lack a way to measure the increase, but they have seen a dramatic uptick in the number of residents using parks like the Mission Hike and Bike Trail.
“It used to be (just) the bike clubs, competitive cyclists out there,” Recreation Director Brad Bentsen said of the five-mile route. “Now it has gone back to the old family ways. You can just go out there and observe how many people are using our bike trails — it’s all day, every day.”
Mission media relations director Roxanne Lerma said she viewed the number of exercisers out and about as an upside to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has posed great challenges for residents, there’s always a silver lining,” Lerma said. “I think it’s wonderful that families are staying healthy and taking on active lifestyles, and taking advantage of trails — it’s the positive thing to do.”
McAllen officials have also noticed a large increase in the number of people using its parks.
“The city of McAllen parks system has seen a large amount of usage through the ever-changing nature of COVID-19,” said Mike Hernandez, the city’s parks and recreation’s director. “Patrons have continued to utilize trails and spend time in the green space, while practicing social distancing.”
Serving as a safe and healthy way to enjoy some time outside of the home, usage of McAllen parks and trails is expected to continue increasing as we enter the summer months.
“The power of parks and open spaces as essential resources for health and wellness has always been understood; during recent months, the ability to spend a day in the outdoors enjoying a beautiful green space or walking on a trail has taken on a new meaning for some,” Hernandez said.
He added that parks serve as a safe place for locals to venture and exercise.
“The city of McAllen Parks and Recreation Department recognized that parks, trails and open spaces could continue to be used in a safe manner that would allow for residents and visitors to enjoy the physical and mental benefits that these spaces provide,” Hernandez said.
The increased interest in pedestrian trails has also been noticed by local retailers, including Bicycle World RGV, which has locations in McAllen, Brownsville, Harlingen and Corpus Christi. Tracy Roberts, the chain’s owner, reports their sales have quadrupled over the past couple of months.
“We did four months of sales in one month,” he said.
Roberts said he usually keeps several bikes in an overstock storage facility, and had a supply that was supposed to last the store until July. That inventory sold out in April. As new models of bikes come in, he said they are assembling them as fast as they can to get them on the floor.
“People are coming in to get whatever they can,” Roberts said.
The store mainly operates as a repair shop, selling a couple of bikes a week before stay at home orders were enforced. Now, Roberts said, the store sells about 15 a day. As the demand for bikes has surged, so has the need for repair jobs.
“Sometimes we get 20-plus people at a time trying to come in, and we are just a handful of employees,” the Harlingen native said.
In order to keep up with repairs, Bicycle World locations have had to close every Tuesday to focus on those jobs. On regular days, customers wait in line outside before being allowed to come in — a tactic used to promote social distancing and control the flow of customers.
“We just want to maintain order and keep customers happy,” Roberts said.
The back room of their McAllen store was packed Wednesday with more than 65 bikes in need of repair. Roberts said he has never seen the room that full — the demand for bikes has never been so high.
“It’s great, we are absolutely blessed and I can’t complain about that,” Roberts, 31, said. “But at the same time, we kind of do want things to go back to normal. We are going to ride this wave as long as we can, but we want to be able to manage the large demand.”
Exhausted from almost nonstop sales during the day, Roberts said he comes home too drained to be able to ride his own bike. However, he is glad that the community has been getting a workout in.
“It’s great to see people wanting to be active,” he said. “I hope it translates to a healthier lifestyle down here for everyone, and that they continue to grow with the sport.”
Dan Hodge, a McAllen native, was at the back of the store repairing the flat tire on a forest green mountain bike. He has been a bike mechanic at the McAllen location for three years now, since retiring as a math teacher from McAllen High School. His passion for cycling started as a child riding a tricycle.
“I think, especially as adults, it brings us back to when we were kids,” Hodge said. “Being carefree, and the freedom of being outdoors in the fresh open air, that’s what it reminds me of. Then when I started cycling more seriously, it was like bike chains, I just couldn’t let it go after.”