Pa. officials: Play alone so parks can stay open

City and state officials are weighing the risks of keeping parks open as they work to enforce social distancing rules triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.

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)

After staying at home every day for almost two weeks now, people crave the outdoors.

Running, hiking, walking, biking, and fishing are some of the few things people can still do under the current coronavirus stay-at-home order. So people are flocking to parks, even though their facilities are closed.

“We’ve had record visitation for this time of year,” said Cindy Adams Dunn, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Park advocates are happy to see people using the outdoors during times of crisis — it confirms the idea that parks are essential, and not just an element to beautify the city. But the surge of visitors into those public spaces is also bringing concerns.

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“We have seen some people who, unfortunately, continue to not follow some of the rules and protocols that we’ve put in place,” said Kathryn Ott Lovell, Philadelphia Parks and Rec Commissioner.

To prevent the risk of infection some parks across the country have chosen to close their gates completely. While countries like Spain, Italy or Chile have banned all outdoor activities, including walking or jogging.

Ott Lovell said the city is not there yet.

“At this point, we’re not really thinking along those lines,” she said. “But, you know, we’ll follow any protocol or directions that we get from the Health Department,” she said.

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The city has been taking a series of progressive measures to prevent the spread of the virus in parks. First, it closed all playgrounds, athletic courts, rec centers, buildings, and bathrooms, and canceled all public events.

Then, after seeing that people were still using basketball courts, the city removed 27 hoops and plans to remove another 53.

Parks and Rec has also begun installing 18×24-inch bilingual lawn signs in heavily used areas to reinforce social distancing guidelines. They are putting up the signs every 300 yards in some areas.

“We’re just trying to educate people and remind people that, while we want them out in the parks, they have to remain a certain distance away from each other to prevent the spread of the virus,” Ott Lovell said.

Two weekends ago, the city closed Martin Luther King Drive to cars, between Falls Bridge and Eakins Oval, after advocates argued the 12-feet-wide trails along the Schuylkill were too busy for people to walk and bike safely. Quickly, biking traffic skyrocketed  471% on Kelly Drive according to data from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission.

Now the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Clean Air Council and other groups want to close more streets to cars, arguing not everyone has access to MLK and other parks.

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)

“I’ve seen way too little social distancing over the course of the pandemic,” said Randy LoBasso, policy manager at the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia. “We don’t expect anybody to just stay in their houses completely shut in —  people have to get outside. If they are doing that anyway, they should be able to have six feet of distance from one another to stay safe during the pandemic.”

LoBasso said his coalition understands closing car traffic is challenging, but said streets inside parks, like Fairmount Park and FDR Park, could be easier to shut down.

“It’s definitely something that we’ve considered,” said Ott Lovell.

State parks in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware closed their facilities and canceled their events to protect visitors and employees from getting infected. But trails and parking lots remain open.

Delaware state parks are not allowing visitors from out of state unless they’ve quarantined for 14 days.

Adams Dunn said she understands people need the outdoors right now more than ever — that’s why they’ve kept access open to the public. But said if people keep crowding and don’t keep an adequate distance, that could change.

“If we see a lack of safety, that would be the main thing that would cause us to reevaluate our stance on that point,” she said.

Both city and state officials are encouraging people to recreate outdoors in parks near their homes and with people living in their household; to find another location or less busy time if a park is too crowded; to avoid playgrounds, picnic tables, and benches; and to take everything they take to parks back with them, as trash is accumulating in parks with the lack of staff.

Blaine Phillips, mid-Atlantic director for the Conservation Fund, a national nonprofit that acquires land to protect it, said the coronavirus pandemic is making people all around the world reflect on how important open space and the outdoors is, and realize how important it is to protect land.

“The outdoors represents, for a lot of people right now, a place of normalcy — the birds are still singing, the flowers are still blooming — and it just provides a sense that things will go on, that we will get through this,” he said.

Philadelphia’s Ott Lovell said 90% of the city residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park or playground. People usually take it for granted, she said.

“I hope [this crisis] helps us realize how important they are, how critical they are to our mental, our physical, and our social well-being as a city.”

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