Social-Distancing Policy Is No Walk in the Public Park

Photo: Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

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For densely packed cities like New York, public parks are more important than ever. Neighborhood parks have always served as communal backyards for New Yorkers and now they’re the only open gym in town, the best spa, and the most popular weekend getaway. For kids, parks are both classroom and playground. As the weather gets warmer, public spaces will only get more crowded, which means state and local officials across the country will need to reevaluate how they regulate (or don’t regulate) the outdoors. Those decisions may be just as important as any other decision being made to beat back the pandemic.

On one side of the equation, decision-makers must consider the toll that stay-at-home orders take on mental and physical health. On the other side is potential for transmission, something scientists are still grappling to understand. Most researchers seem to agree that the virus can be transmitted through the air or in tiny droplets, hence the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendation that people stand six feet apart (even though droplets can travel much farther).

But the early evidence suggests that the transmission risks for someone following social-distancing guidelines in a public park are very, very small. A recent study in China, which has not been peer reviewed, analyzed more than 1,000 coronavirus cases, grouping them into small groups of two or three infections. Researchers analyzed hundreds of transmission venues and concluded that only one transmission had occurred outside. Even before that study surfaced, a group of Harvard scientists, including epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, weighed the available evidence and came to an unequivocal conclusion in the Washington Post: “The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.” Zeynep Tufekci recently pointed out in The Atlantic that a 2009 study of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic recommended “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible” during the next pandemic.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio, who himself continues to make full use of New York parks during the pandemic, resisted the idea of closing playgrounds. At first, he tried to use the NYPD to impose social distancing, but pictures of crowded parks and playgrounds kept popping up.

“If people are not abiding by the rules, if they’re not listening to the warnings, we may get to the point in just days where we have to close the playgrounds for the duration of this crisis,” de Blasio told reporters on March 25. “It’s not something I want to do, but it’s something I’m ready to do.” A week later, Governor Cuomo announced that, after consulting with de Blasio and City Council speaker Corey Johnson, the city’s playgrounds would be cordoned off for the foreseeable future. In addition to playgrounds, the city removed the hoops from basketball courts and closed tennis courts.

“Closing the playgrounds was the hardest decision we’ve had to make,” said New York City Parks Department commissioner Mitchell Silver. Silver said the department used GIS analysis to determine that about 55,000 New Yorkers would be impacted by the decision. “It was the right decision,” Silver said.

To give people more outdoor space, de Blasio launched a pilot program that converted 1.5 miles of street in four boroughs into pedestrian walkways. The program lasted only a week before de Blasio killed it. Now, the City Council, led by Johnson, is attempting to force the mayor to restart the program, this time providing 75 miles of street space.

Over the past month, Johnson has started taking a daily walk up the Brooklyn waterfront (he’s sheltering at his boyfriend’s apartment) that takes him through Domino Park, WNYC Transmitter Park, across the Pulaski Bridge, and into Queen’s Hunter Point South Park. “I’ll tell you that in each one of the parks, even on really beautiful days, 90 percent of the New Yorkers I see are really trying to maintain a social distance,” Johnson said. “Once it gets really nice out and warm, we’re going to need to find additional space besides parks for people to actually be able to exercise and walk and play. The thing that we have the most of are city streets.”

Both Johnson and Silver said that closing the city’s parks entirely was never on the table. Instead, the commissioner has addressed overcrowding on a case-by-case basis. Those decisions are informed, not by social media, but by park employees collecting attendance data in real-time, 311 calls, and observations made by the NYPD and park employees. When Silver heard Prospect Park was “packed” on a recent afternoon, he went to see for himself and was reassured to see the people were practicing social distancing. On that same afternoon, he was told Astoria Park was packed so he headed there and saw that people were not following social-distancing guidelines. (The city erected a barricade around the skate park in Astoria Park, which didn’t go over well.)

There is no playbook for managing parks during a 21st-century pandemic. Aside from guidelines issued by the CDC, the federal government has not provided much direction. Municipal and state parks are as diverse as cities themselves and a one-size-fits-all approach would not work. Distancing measures at Honolulu Watershed Forest Reserve (600 square miles) should not be applied to Waldo Park (240 square feet) in Salem, Oregon. It’s up to governors, mayors, and local officials to draw up their own plans, which so far have varied widely. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy completely shuttered state parks in early April and has kept them closed despite significant backlash. Greg Abbott closed Texas state parks for less than two weeks before reopening them earlier this week. Other states have favored a patchwork approach. Wisconsin closed dozens of parks after a few locations saw record attendance following Tony Evers’s stay-at-home order. In Florida, Ron DeSantis ordered beaches closed in late March (after most spring breakers had gone home), only to tell county officials last weekend that they were free to reopen their beaches for limited activities like fishing and exercise. “God help us all,” said Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot when she heard about DeSantis’s decision to reopen beaches. Lightfoot closed Chicago’s popular Lakefront Trail in late March when crowds packed the Lake Michigan beach on a sunny day.

The vast majority of Americans agree with stay-at-home measures, so it follows that they understand the benefit of physical distancing — it’s possible that the people who crowded Chicago’s beaches or Wisconsin’s state parks in March may be more reluctant to do so again this summer. There may not be a workable public policy that allows people to enjoy public parks safely and freely in larger numbers. Instead, it may simply be up to people to self-enforce physical distancing.

But even as the number of new coronavirus cases in New York falls, restrictions on public spaces will continue at least through the summer. In mid-April, de Blasio announced that the city’s pools would remain closed through the summer, which he described as both a public-health and budgetary decision. Former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe criticized the measure, saying it would “cause a major spike in drowning deaths,” citing the fact that Robert Moses had built the pools “to prevent poor kids from drowning in rivers.”

“I respect my colleague, but I’m not sure I agree,” said Silver in response. “When Robert Moses started building these pools it was a very different world.” According to Silver, the pools presented a problem because of the lines to get in and enforcing social distancing in locker rooms would be impossible.

“We understand pools being closed changes the vibe of New York, but we’re planning ahead,” said Silver. “We don’t know, once this pandemic ends, how people will behave in public spaces. But we want to make sure this will still be a summer of fun, once the curve has flattened.”

Social-Distancing Policy Is No Walk in the Public Park