Parks overrun with crowds despite social distancing
Traffic was busy Monday at Memorial Park, and many visitors were not social distancing as health experts recommend to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Houstonians looking for outdoor exercise are jamming Memorial Park, apparently ignoring the advice of health experts to maintain safe social distances to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
After an unusually busy spring weekend, Memorial Park president and CEO Shellye Arnold sounded an alarm. “We’re having a real challenge in the park right now,” Arnold said. “People seem to lose their judgment when they go into a green space.”
Arnold called Memorial Park the city’s largest, centrally-located free public health asset — “but only if people are using it safely.”
Park use spiked the day people were asked to work from home and has increased every day since, she said. Most days, only about 30 percent of Memorial Park’s parking spaces are in use during peak hours, but now visitors are circling the roads as they look for spaces, creating traffic jams.
To comply with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, the conservancy postponed all park programs, events and special use permits last week. On Monday it closed Memorial Park’s playground, stretching station and volleyball courts, where people congregate, until further notice; and it posted warning signs on water fountains and restrooms to protect its staff as well as the public.
“We are prohibiting things to the extent that we can,” Arnold said. “But we can’t possibly sterilize enough.”
The conservancy manages 1,100 of the park’s 1,500 acres. The city operates recreational facilities including the golf course and tennis center, which remained open Monday. The ballfields and the Aquatic & Fitness Center are closed. “Decisions regarding what is open or closed are discussed on a daily basis with the administration,” said parks and recreation spokesperson Estella Espinosa.
“If you get to the park and can’t find parking, it’s a good idea to go somewhere else, maybe somewhere you haven’t explored before,” Arnold said. “There are still plenty of great spaces.” She also recommends visiting during off-peak hours, before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m.; and exercising solo. “If you’re with two or three people, you tend to attract more. You just can’t control it.”
Arnold strongly recommends that park visitors bring their own water and follow the CDC’s guidance personal hygiene before they arrive: First, stay home if you have virus symptoms, she said. And if you feel fine, wash your hands, carry hand sanitizer, cover your mouth and nose when sneezing and use the restroom at home, because park facilities may be closed.
Most importantly at the park, she urges visitors to stay at least six feet away from others on the trails and refrain from touching hard surfaces. She also requests that visitors carry out their own trash, because park maintenance has been reduced.
“We know Houstonians love their parks and greenspace,” Espinosa said. “We simply ask park users ‘to pick it up and pack it up before you go.’ Caring for our parks and greenspaces is not just the responsibility of the people who are cleaning up the trash, but also of the people who are creating it.” Officials at Buffalo Bayou Park, which is between Shepherd Drive and downtown, suggest the same precautions. Trails there have been busy as well. The Buffalo Bayou Partnership has suspended canoe rentals and closed its two visitor centers, its cistern, its nature play area and its dog park. The Kitchen at the Dunlavy is closed, but the Lee & Joe Jamail Skatepark was open Monday.
“We like how some people, usually in groups of 2 or 3, are having informal picnics in the meadows in the park,” said spokesperson Trudi Smith. Through partnership also recommends looking for trails less taken, as well as its Buffalo Bend Nature Park in the East End.
Hermann Park, adjacent to the Texas Medical Center and the Houston Museum District, has been more serene. Hermann Park Conservancy president Doreen Stoller attributes the quieter attitude to the “gracious” scale of the park, its trails and gardens. “People are being mindful and respectful of their fellow visitors,” Stoller said. “The park is a refuge right now — and playing an important role for both mental and physical health.”