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Columbia allows greenspace use in parks; ball fields, courts, playgrounds still closed

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Caution tape is wrapped around a playground in Lorick Park to keep kids off due to COVID-19 restrictions. Photo by John Carlos

Columbia City Council will allow people to utilize the greenspaces and walking trails in the city’s parks, but the various sports fields and courts in those parks will remain shuttered for a while longer amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Council voted on May 12 to extend the closure of the city’s parks facilities — including tennis courts, basketball courts, playgrounds, baseball fields, pools and more — for another 60 days. Council, however, could go back and amend or rescind the order before that 60 days is up.

However, residents will be able to access the parks in some capacity.

“People will be able to use the greenspace, and use the walking trails,” at-large City Councilman Howard Duvall tells Free Times. Duvall notes Council wants people to be able to exercise and be in the sunshine in a way that supports social distancing, but says the city is not yet ready to open fields and courts for contact sports through which the virus might spread more easily.

As of May 18, about 8,800 people in South Carolina had tested positive for the novel coronavirus, with 385 deaths, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. COVID-19 has been particularly troublesome in Richland County, which leads the state in total number of positive cases (1,238) and deaths (61).

District 2 Councilman Ed McDowell said during the May 12 meeting that he simply does not think the time has arrived to lift restrictions on fields or courts where physical contact could be abundant, particularly considering the contagious nature of COVID-19

“Greenspace is fine,” McDowell says. “But I think if we were to consider the other sports, whether it’s soccer, whether it’s football, whether it is tag football, I think we need to be consistent. This is dangerous. I think to do anything other than staying the course could be deadly for all of us. ... We are in a [time] when there is danger everywhere.”

McDowell did say he thinks the opportunity to go walking and utilize open spaces in parks while social distancing is something “of value to all our residents.”

Mayor Steve Benjamin says it will be important to make sure the city’s message is clear as it regards park usage, and city officials have indicated there would be signage at parks outlining rules. Benjamin also advocated for a common sense approach to city staff dispersing groups that might not be social distancing, or groups making use of sports fields or courts that remain closed.

“Obviously, if we see some kind of egregious flouting of the rules, we have to be prepared to respond in kind, however we need to, keeping our eyes on the issues of equity and consistency citywide,” Benjamin said. “Obviously someone not social distancing is not a criminal offense. We are trying to maintain public health. We are not in the business of penalizing people for recreating. That’s not who we are.”

Councilman Daniel Rickenmann says he’s seen encouraging signs regarding the coronavirus. He pointed out that new cases have plateaued in South Carolina, and that hospitals have not yet been overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients in the Palmetto State. He notes there will have to be a point in which the city again allows the sports fields and courts in its parks to be used.

In particular, Rickenmann says tennis players have been reaching out to him.

“I have to tell you, for the most part I haven’t had anybody call me about playground equipment or anything,” the District 4 councilman said. “But, for some reason, tennis has been a hot thing. I think it is just that people need to get out. They have walked themselves to death. They’ve rode their bikes to death. If we are going to stay the course, what allows that next step [of sports fields and courts] to be released?”

Benjamin agreed that, as the next weeks and months go past, the city will have to find “some kind of standard” it is going to rely on to determine when to reopen its sports facilities and playgrounds in parks.

He says it is becoming clear that a consistent deceleration — and not just a plateau — in COVID-19 cases doesn’t seem to be coming soon.

“The one piece of data that I had hoped we’d all be able to count on was always going to be a 14-day deceleration in cases. We’re not going to see that,” the third-term mayor said, frankly. “OK? We are not going to see it just by the way that we’ve handled things as a state and as a country. We’re just not going to see it. Obviously, now that we are having moderate reopenings, we have to start determining what the other standards will be.”

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