As fitness studios discover Philly parks, city urges them to play fair

Signs posted along Philadelphia's Schuylkill River Trail caution users to keep six feet away from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Signs posted along Philadelphia's Schuylkill River Trail caution users to keep six feet away from others to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Summers in Philadelphia have long offered plenty of options for outdoor fitness. But this year, the push outside runs deeper than the views, thanks to COVID-19 risks that make group workouts risky unless you are outdoors and distanced. 

But beware: that athleisure-clad yoga squad you see sweating up your neighborhood park may be violating city regulations.  

The city has issued only 13 permits for outdoor recreation and athletics — for both youth and adult activities — since July 6 when the city moved into the green phase and began issuing permits again. 

While the city anticipates processing at least another dozen permits this month, the total number still represents a steep reduction from pre-coronavirus times when more than 200 permits was the norm for a summer season. It also doesn’t capture the full scope of city park usage as people look to recreate the studio experience out of doors.

“Anecdotally, we have seen and heard about a number of paid fitness classes taking place in our City’s public parks, many without the proper permits,”  said Maita Soukup, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. 

Classes and fitness activities that come with cost or are offered free of charge should only be held if they have inquired about the permit process, especially as the city recovers and continues to flatten the curve, Soukup said. 

“We strongly urge all fitness instructors, community members, and business owners who are looking to hold classes in our parks to go through the permitting process before holding outdoor exercise classes in a public park.

The permitting is especially important given social distancing needs — and the unprecedented demand for green space during the pandemic. In a city where many residents rely on public spaces for access to green places to play and get exercise, it’s a health equity issue. 

“All residents deserve to have equal access to parks and green space, which is more important this year than ever before,” Soukup said. 

Before the pandemic, South Philadelphia yoga teacher Jillian Ashley Blair Ivey routinely held outdoor classes in Dickinson Square Park, where she is also on the board of the Friends group. She usually held them on Sundays mornings before the Farmer’s Market opened. She loved it. 

She hasn’t yet restarted her park practice but the move outdoors is on her mind. 

“I can’t wait to get back to teaching in the park. It’s something I look forward to every summer.”

Many of her students are frontline workers and she believes yoga in the fresh air, away from the challenges of Zoom, will be a relief.

“I have students who work in hospitals. Students who are senior citizens. Students who are pregnant or have children at home,” she said.

Meanwhile, other instructors used to a studio-only practice are making the jump to public parks — or considering it.

Focus Barre & Yoga started socially-distanced outdoor instruction in Fitler Square Park on July 31.

Meanwhile in the Spring Garden neighborhood, BPM Fitness is teaching regular classes at Matthias Baldwin Park.

In West Philadelphia, the team at Smith Memorial Playground in Fairmount Park is offering yoga every Saturday in August.

And in Fishtown, instructors are teaching outdoor yoga in Penn Treaty Park. 

Jeni Paradiso, owner of a dance studio Shimmy Well, is watching closely as classes move outdoors. She is “very excited about the idea,” but apprehensive about the heat. Shade trees can only do much on a steamy August day and the studio’s workout classes can be “intense,” she said.

With that in mind, her studio may just put a pin in plans to venture out until cooler temperatures prevail, Paradiso said.

Luckily for her, outdoor recreational and athletic permits are valid through November 30, as in years prior. Currently, it takes approximately 10 days for permits to be approved for applicants that submit complete paperwork with their application, Soukup said. 

In order to obtain a permit this year to use a public city park, complete applications include both the Recreation & Athletic Permit Application, as well as the COVID-19 Reopen with Care Permit Addendum

Anyone who wants to make use of the City’s public spaces who previously held a permit before the citywide shutdown must reapply with the addendum. 

“Should health restrictions change … the city will issue a refund and communicate [changes] with permit holders,” Soukup said. 

And for those who aren’t attending paid fitness class, Sokoup has a tip: 

Philadelphia has city-owned outdoor fitness equipment in 16 public parks

And while those sites are free and open to the public whenever the park is open, they are increasingly popular these days so beware of crowds.

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