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Parks remain accessible, but playscapes cause community concern

Thursday, March 19, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

Austin’s public parks are institutions of expansive green space and outdoor recreation that would appear to be prime locations to abide by social distancing policies while offering the chance to get out and about. However, depending on the destination, enjoying these public facilities can breach city-enacted safety measures.

This week, the city limited gatherings to no more than 10 people in a confined outdoor space. Playgrounds and recreational parks make the list of places that must abide by that limitation.

This has left some Austin families wondering if parks and playgrounds are a viable destination to enjoy with their children now that the school district has extended spring break until April 6 and many parents are working from home.

“We’re not going to playgrounds. We used to go to playgrounds constantly,” Carrie Cunningham, a mother of two in North Central Austin, told the Austin Monitor. She said since playgrounds are generally teeming with children and the potential for contact, her family has decided to avoid them. “It’s already so hard to explain this to kids and explain to them why we’re in this twilight zone,” she said. “So what we’ve done is revert to things where they don’t have to touch anything.” For the Cunninghams, this means city greenbelts, trails and open space.

Not only can enjoying a playscape with children violate social distancing, but Sheryl Kubala, a mother of three, told the Monitor she is wary of the risks associated with improperly sanitized play equipment used by dozens of kids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” The virus can survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours, according to a new study from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Institutes of Health.

A city spokesperson told the Monitor, “Neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the industry has established standards for daily cleaning of playgrounds. With that being said, to the extent possible, PARD crews are proceeding with the established protocols associated with cleaning and exploring opportunities for supplemental assistance from area contractors. It is not possible to disinfect/sanitize every playground every day.”

There are 120 playgrounds in the public parks system and the city has not restricted access to them nor limited park attendance.

As a result, Kubala said she is looking for alternative sources of outdoor entertainment away from play structures. “If we go to a place that has a playscape, there’s no way to keep the children off of it,” she said.

So Kubala heads for hike and bike trails that are sparingly used or goes out of the city entirely. Cunningham, too, said she and her husband take their children to green spaces and greenbelts where there is plenty of room to roam without rubbing shoulders with others.

Libraries, aquatic facilities, tennis centers, senior centers, museums and cultural centers are all shuttered in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Golf courses remain open to walk but cart rentals have been halted and pro shops are closed. That leaves parks, fields, hiking trails and bike routes open for public use.

Cunningham said these limited recreation options has led her family to get creative and rethink what activities are safe and available. For the most part, that means outdoor excursions that occupy most mornings for Cunningham’s children as she works from home.

Faced with the extended closure of district schools, Kubala explained that recreation is an ongoing need. While she said, “We’re trying to social distance as much as we can,” she noted she is relying on public open space as a means to leave the house and get some fresh air and exercise.

Since Kubala’s family is being vigilant and avoiding crowded play areas, she is relying heavily on city green spaces for her kids to get outside and play safely in an environment where “there are very few ways to safely do that right now.”

Photo by Tap/CC BY-SA 3.0.

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