June 11, 2020
By Rachel Holliday Smith
The governor has given the go-ahead for New York City to reopen its playgrounds — but the mayor isn’t quite ready yet.
It’s been 10 weeks since the city shuttered recreational spaces around the five boroughs, locking up cherished green space around those playgrounds and courts, THE CITY reported earlier this week.
Following that article, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday paved the way for reopening, saying the decision to open or close playgrounds and public pools is now up to “the discretion of local governments.”
He said officials would “have to use their judgment.”
“They have the test data. They should be studying the test data. They should be looking at those positives and see where the positives are coming from,” he said.
In New York City, positive cases of COVID-19 and deaths from the disease are at their lowest levels since the virus outbreak began.
Still, before Cuomo’s announcement, Mayor Bill de Blasio wasn’t ready Thursday morning to change course. Answering a question on the issue from Hamodia, whose reporter asked about reports of police removing families from playgrounds in Williamsburg, de Blasio said he does not “lack compassion for those parents,” cooped up inside with children.
“I know it must be extraordinarily tough. I know parents are so frustrated,” he said.
But he said the time is still not right for reopening.
“The day is coming. It’s not here yet. But the day is coming where we’ll be able to open up them again,” he said. “We don’t have a timeline yet. But it will be absolutely connected to how we do in fighting back the disease.”
Later in the day, Jane Meyer, a City Hall spokesperson, said, “We are watching health indicators closely and simultaneously working on a plan so when it’s safe to open playgrounds, we can.” The mayor has also yet to make a decision on whether to reopen the city’s public pools, and said that staffing now-open beaches with lifeguards to allow swimming may be possible later this summer. He didn’t provide specifics.
‘Need More Nuance’
The safety of playgrounds when they reopen remains a matter of concern. Touching common surfaces in play areas poses some risk, but it’s still unclear how long the virus may live on plastic or metal, particularly outdoors, The New York Times reported.
Children older than 2 or 3 should wear masks, and crowding at any play space should be avoided, medical experts told the newspaper.
Retired public school teacher Emily Stern lives near Newkirk Plaza in Brooklyn, where children and families have been making do with what they have. A local playground has been under construction since before COVID-19 hit.
Kids have taken to the grassy medians on Glenwood Road, particularly where the street dead ends into the Q train tracks.
Since the start of quarantine, “it’s like perennial recess,” she said.
Carter Strickland, New York state director for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, noted that unused open spaces and amenities — such as ball fields, or seating areas — remain locked up while they could be opened for passive recreation.
“Especially in the early days of a crisis like this, protective measures made sense,” he said. “But as people need parks, we’re going to need more nuance.”
Meyer said the city Department of Parks and Recreation only closed spaces around playgrounds when there was no “gate or barrier that could isolate just the equipment.”
Need for Relief
The Trust for Public Land, whose mission is to help create and protect parks and other shared open spaces, mapped how parks closure have affected park access, and huge swaths of the city are now farther than a 10-minute walk from a neighborhood green space. As the summer heats up, people will need a reprieve, Strickland said.
“Working families really have a hard time. They’re indoors with their kids, and their kids have no place to go. There needs to be some pressure relief,” he said.
Adam Ganser, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, another green-minded advocacy group, pointed out that smaller playground-parks help cool the city down.
“These tiny playgrounds with their sprinklers and water features are part of a cooling system that allows New Yorkers, primarily who live in small apartments, to get outside in the summer months and cool off. Right now, none of those things are available,” he said. “For those who don’t have air conditioning, they don’t have a lot of options.”
Staff will be needed to manage crowds and keep things clean and safe, but Ganser’s group worries about major cuts to the Parks Department budget. New Yorkers for Parks and other groups are pushing for $47 million to be restored to the agency’s coffers.
“If you’re eliminating these positions and cutting the budget more, you’re making it less and less likely that we’re able to open up the spaces that New York City should be relying on,” Ganser said.