Mar 27, 2020 - Health

Parks pose major problem for cities battling coronavirus

people in new york city
A couple riding a bike and scooter wearing protective masks in Central Park. Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Closed businesses, home offices and schools amid the coronavirus pandemic has translated into an influx of outdoor recreation in parks, despite states' advice for people to stay home.

Why it matters: So many people are visiting city parks to escape the stuck-at-home monotony that the public spaces have become crowded. Some people are exercising in groups or playing contact sports, undermining social distancing recommendations.

Driving the news: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo launched a pilot program to open up a New York City street in each borough for residents to walk at a safe distance from each other.

The big picture: The decision comes as a potential solution for the state to keep dense clusters of people at bay when the warmer weather entices outdoor exercise or socializing, a huge problem especially with young people, Cuomo said.

"We have many fewer vehicles in New York City — open streets, people want to walk. They want to go out and get some air. They want a less dense area, so [we will] pilot closing streets to cars, opening streets to pedestrians."
— Cuomo

Details: Starting on Friday through Monday, March 30, vehicles won't be able to drive on specified streets from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cuomo is also asking people to voluntarily give up contact sports in parks such as basketball.

Yes, but: Some cities and states have had to close off areas or parks because the risk of illness spreading in mass crowds was believed to be too high.

  • In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee closed all parks and wildlife areas, the Seattle Times reports.
  • Some Florida beaches in Clearwater and Miami have closed to keep spring breakers away.
  • In Washington D.C., police blocked off roads to the Tidal Basin, where the famous cherry blossom trees attract massive crowds every year, the Washington Post reports.

Cities are following public health department guidance to manage public spaces, but people need the outdoors for mental and physical health, especially during stressful times, said Catherine Nagel, executive director of City Parks Alliance, a nonprofit.

  • In Memphis, she said, park volunteers are going online to talk about practicing safe distancing at parks. New York City is setting up live web cameras so people can see flowering trees from their computers. Other cities are telling park patrons to exercise on their own.
  • "For people cooped up in very dense areas, it's important to find ways to allow people to be outside, even if they're able to walk along the streets," Nagel said. "Parks and nature play a great role in our resiliency."
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