Crowds at White Rock Lake forced the city to shut off vehicular access and close parking lots in March. (Photo by Trace Miller)

Coronavirus

During the Summer of Pandemic, Dallas Parks Weigh What’s Safe to Reopen

Families want to get out and use the public amenities, like playgrounds, spraygrounds, pools, and basketball courts. But what is safe?

As the total number of COVID-19 cases in Dallas County since March surpasses 20,000, the city’s Park Board is weighing how to reopen amenities at the 397 public parks. The Parks Department has already delayed opening pools and beginning summer camps until July 20. But other things, like playgrounds and spraygrounds, have been open since June 19.

All playgrounds and spraygrounds were sanitized prior to reopening but have not been cleaned since. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that chlorine in pools and water spraygrounds can kill the virus, but there remains concern about interactions outside the water. Dr. Kelvin Baggett, the city’s COVID-19 czar, warned against reopening these amenities during the Park Board’s June 4 meeting.

“We don’t know enough, and high-touch areas are the highest potential transmission sources,” Baggett said. “So, keep them closed is my recommendation.”

The Parks Department moved forward with opening. Other, closer-contact amenities like volleyball and basketball courts reopened June 5. It’s not uncommon to see groups of 20 to 30 clustered at basketball courts, maskless, at parks like Willis C. Winters Park in East Dallas. Park Board President Calvert Collins-Bratton says a key factor in distinguishing between what to reopen is the level of personal responsibility required. Park staff conduct summer camps and lifeguard at pools, whereas community members choosing to go to parks do so on their own without supervision.

“I don’t think we’ll ever all agree on the best approach to reopening,” Collins-Bratton said. “We want to be mindful and offer the public opportunities, but understanding that there is a level of personal responsibility in knowing where you’re going and how to protect yourself. And then still being able to offer those facilities and amenities that are open to the public and should be–(they’re) taxpayer-funded, after all.”

Playgrounds are also high-touch areas, but they are also used by children who are thought to be at lower-risk of contracting COVID-19. Park Board Member Jesse Moreno was concerned about  recent outbreaks at daycare facilities, which also spread to adult staff and their families. County Judge Clay Jenkins has asked that daycares require children older than 2 years old to wear masks. Collins-Bratton says that the board has received more complaints from constituents itching to leave their homes about closed playgrounds and spraygrounds than anything else.

The department currently plans on delaying the city’s organized basketball leagues until late in the summer, but private groups have already begun using the courts. Baggett also spoke against opening these amenities, fearful of spreading the virus.

“I would be very cautious,” Baggett said during the June 4 board meeting. “I would not be a proponent of most organized sports.”

Moreno says he’s seen overcrowding at basketball courts, as well as people without masks standing within six feet of one another. The board has adopted measures to send park rangers out to problematic areas and shut down parks on a case-by-case basis if overcrowding continues. Rangers are sent out based on reports of overuse, which happened last weekend at Mildred Dunn Park in South Dallas.

“You do have the pockets of individuals who are not necessarily adhering, but we have a great number of people who are being very responsible,” said Crystal Ross, the city’s assistant director of Recreation Services.

The entire reopening process is under review each day and has the potential to be reversed if cases continue to rise. On Tuesday, Dallas County set a record with 601 new cases of COVID-19. Between Dallas and Tarrant counties, 930 patients are hospitalized from the coronavirus. The board is simultaneously reviewing guidance from the National Recreation and Park Association, the CDC, and the governor. Director John Jenkins also participates in a weekly call with park directors of other cities in Texas, including Austin, Houston, and El Paso.

“Trying to align with all those different entities, who often don’t align with one another, it’s challenging but we’re trying to make sure that it makes sense,” Ross said “So we are taking a look at our proposed dates, and we’re making adjustments as necessary.”

For now, the department is offering guidance that it hopes residents will follow at locations that have already been opened. It’s standard prevention: wear masks, sanitize, and maintain a six-foot distance from others. Not all on the Park Board are comfortable with that policy line.

“We had our entire park system other than open spaces and trails close when we were seeing COVID cases in the hundred range, and now we’re seeing cases of COVID-19, surpassing 600, and we’re opening,” Moreno said. “So that just kind of seems odd. [It] seems backward that we now have more cases and we’re opening up.”

The plan to reopen pools also takes into account the need to provide swimming options equitably in neighborhoods throughout Dallas. Under this plan, each facility is open only two days a week with four two-hour sessions per day. In addition to a general cleaning before opening, pool staff will also maintain and test the water multiple times a day to ensure proper pH levels.

“We’re just as bummed as everybody else; we wanted to have a fantastic summer,” Ross said. “It’s not what we all plan for, but we are prepared to open in a very modified and abbreviated manner. But we’re hoping that we’ll be able to salvage some of the summer for folks, should we be able to get things rolling on July 20.”

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