Spraygrounds a relatively safe way to cool off, experts say

As Philadelphia reopens its park spraygrounds, experts say they’re a relatively safe way for kids to play and stay cool during the summer heat.

Philadelphia sprayground summer camps

File photo: Spraygrounds in Philadelphia will open Friday for summer 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Water play was not on Natasha Butler’s mind when she headed to Mander Playground in North Philadelphia with her two little girls.

But when her one-year-old and three-year-old saw that Mander’s sprayground had been turned on for the first time this year, she was more than happy to let them run around in the water, never mind the coronavirus.

Given the day’s 90-plus degree temperature, the city was smart to finally open its 91 spraygrounds, she said.

“Oh, I’m excited. I think they should be open. I think the children should have opportunities to cool off and just have some fun,” Butler said Monday morning, as her kids and several other children ran around the park’s tall bendy spray pipes.

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Philadelphia sprayground summer camps
Kids at Mander playground wear masks on the first day of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Summer Camps. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“It’s exciting that the kids can get out. It’s exciting for the parents,” she said with a laugh.

With the public pools all closed this year, and reopening plans still unclear for senior centers, libraries, cinemas, and other diversions, the spraygrounds that opened yesterday are among the very few options residents have to get out of the house and cool off.

Officials acknowledged that the spread of COVID-19 remains a concern in situations where people gather together. But they said the very small risk posed by spraygrounds was far outweighed by the benefits, especially for young children who have been stuck at home for months.

Mayor Kenney at a Philly sprayground
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney (right) takes questions from reporters with Council President Darrell Clarke at Mander Playground as summer camps opened. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

During a visit to Mander on Monday to mark the reopening, Mayor Jim Kenney it was important — amid the pandemic, civil unrest, and a recent spate of violent crime — not to forget the importance of providing opportunities like the sprayground to the city’s children.

“I mean, look at them. They’re beautiful babies and they’re having a good time, and it’s 90 degrees, and they’re cooling off,” he said, as children from Mander’s summer camp played in the water nearby. “Certainly, we have to take precautions. Obviously, everyone is wearing a mask. We ask the kids to wear a mask when they’re not under the water. But we can’t lock them up in the house and expect them not to go crazy like the rest of the adults would.”

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said the reopening follows lengthy consultations with the Health Department and the start of a limited green phase for the city last Friday that allows use of private pools.

Philadelphia sprayground summer camps
Spraygrounds in Philadelphia opened Monday, and kids at Mander playground were among the first to enjoy the streams. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Recreation center summer camps also started Monday, with reduced enrollment and new health protocols, and the city is beginning to reinstall basketball hoops that were removed from playgrounds earlier this year to discourage games.

Ott Lovell noted that spraygrounds differ from pools in that the children only touch the water briefly before it drains away, which may allay some parents’ safety concerns. Signs in Spanish and English that are posted at Mander and many other city parks remind visitors to practice coronavirus safety measures.

“Because the water is not recirculated, it’s actually a great way for kids to get cool,” she said. “We are not mandating masks while kids are in the water, but once they come out of the water we’re asking them to put back on their mask, and then we’re also making sure that people are socially distanced, and that they’re aren’t so many kids that we would be over a 50-person threshold at our spraygrounds.”

Philadelphia sprayground summer camps
Spraygrounds in Philadelphia opened Monday, and kids at Mander playground were among the first to enjoy the streams. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

At nine or 10 of the largest spraygrounds, social distancing ambassadors will be on hand to ensure that people respect the 50-person limit, she said.

Butler said she thought about having her daughters wear masks in the sprayground but concluded they wouldn’t do much good.

“I don’t think they would be effective in the water. I don’t think just having a wet, soggy mask on your face would be effective at all,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control specifically recommends that people not wear face coverings when swimming or getting wet, as wet masks can make it difficult to breathe.

“It would be so unfun to be in the water in a mask, you just wouldn’t go in the water,” said Dr. Thomas Fekete, an infectious disease physician who is Chair of Medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University. “If you’re going to be in the water, you are accepting some additional risk just because the masks aren’t effective [wet], and because when they get wet you touch them and then you can bring things to your eyes and your nose.”

On a safety scale of activities that pose a risk of viral transmission, spraygrounds are closer to the “really safe” end, Fekete said.

“It’s an outdoor area, the kids are presumably not going to be in fairly close proximity to each other, and because the winds are going to blow and so on, it’s relatively safe,” he said. “Having said that, there’s a possibility kids will be bumping into each other, and spitting and coughing on each other, so there is some potential risk.”

Playing in a sprayground outdoors may be preferable to being indoors, where air conditioners recycle the air, Fekete said. And since most of the water from spray equipment immediately falls off the children onto their feet and the ground, spraygrounds create no more concern for virus transmission than any other activity where children are playing together.

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“Of all the things you can do with a kid in the summertime, this one is probably not so scary. And I certainly think kids need to get outside and get some socialization. Adults do too, but with kids I think it’s kind of essential after this really rough winter we’ve had,” he said. Being indoors all the time is “incredibly stressful” for children, he said.

Parents who want to be extra safe can bring along hand sanitizer, make sure their kids clean their hands when they leave the sprayground, and remind them not to put their fingers in their eyes or nose, he added. Once their faces are dry they can put their masks back on.

Spraygrounds are generally open to the public on weekdays from 3-7 p.m. and on weekends from noon to 5 p.m., officials said. A map of the spraygrounds is available on the city’s website.

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