When park facilities across Vancouver reopened this week, it wasn’t because the COVID-19 risk had ended, or even lessened.
In fact, the decision to open playgrounds, sport courts, picnic shelters, barbecues and restrooms to the public came in the middle of the worst week yet for coronavirus, with 143 new local cases identified by Thursday.
But according to Julie Hannon, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, reopening the park facilities was a strategic move. People were ignoring the closures, implemented on March 23, and using the park amenities anyway. So city staff decided to change course.
“We’ve had them technically closed, and we’ve been taping them off for the entire period until now, and there’s so many times people have been using them,” Hannon said. “It made more sense to pivot our strategy and make the playgrounds as safe as possible.”
The decision also affected Wintler Community Park, the Leverich Park disc golf course and Swift Skate Park, which had shut to the public. All three sites are now open.
After communicating with Hannon, City Manager Eric Holmes issued an emergency order on Tuesday announcing the parks would be reopening, effective immediately. The order will be reviewed by the city council at its regular meeting Monday evening.
Hannon said she’s been eyeing the spike in coronavirus cases with apprehension, adding that the new number of cases gave her pause. Clark County now has 901 confirmed cases of the virus, including 29 deaths. No new statistics were available Friday due to the holiday.
But keeping park facilities closed didn’t seem to be helping, she said. It just meant that people kept using them, and staff wasn’t cleaning them.
“So many people are using (the playgrounds) anyway, that trying to keep a practice in place that is ineffective, instead of pivoting to make them as safe as possible — you have two choices, and the first one stopped working,” Hannon said. “Keeping them closed wasn’t proving to be any safer. It was less safe.”
Now that park facilities are officially open, Hannon said that the city will contract with the same professional cleaning service that’s already sanitizing the handful of city park restrooms that have remained open during the pandemic. Crews will try to get to each play structure at least once and potentially twice a week.
However, Hannon said, the city can’t guarantee to visitors that the playgrounds will be free of COVID-19.
Precautions still in play
In a press release Tuesday, Holmes emphasized that lifting the closures does not mean that park visitors can disregard the precautions necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19.
Though pickup games on the sport courts are allowed, players should try to avoid groups of more than five people. In scenarios where park visitors are likely to be close to one another — like during a basketball game, or on a play structure — face masks are strongly encouraged.
Wintler Community Park had been closed because its sandy beach draws crowds during the summer. If visitors arrive and find the park too crowded to safely maintain 6 feet of social distance, they’re advised to find another place to go. The same goes for all public spaces.
And as ever, the emergency order states, anyone experiencing symptoms of an illness should stay home. So should people who have been in contact with anyone diagnosed or suspected to have had coronavirus within the last 14 days.
Signs have been posted at park locations reminding visitors of the necessary protocol, Hannon said.
“All those safety issues are still in play,” she said.