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City Council Braces for Playground Fight With Community

With Alexandria health officials expecting the total number of COVID-19 cases to go up during Phase 1 of reopening, the City Council discussed the line between what coronavirus restrictions can be put in place and what can be enforced — particularly when it comes to playgrounds.

During a City Council discussion last night (Tuesday), James Spengler, Director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said city playgrounds could not open until Phase 3 of the reopening, which could be in the fall.

Spengler argued it wouldn’t be feasible to have children slotted for playtimes on the equipment, clean the equipment off, then bring in another group of children.

That prospect did not sit well with the City Council.

“We’re bringing dogparks back but not playgrounds?” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “I understand the contact, I understand the difference, … [but] we have to rely on the community to rely on rules and regulations. If they don’t, we have to go in another direction. We might have to take that approach on some of these reopenings.”

The question of enforcement has lurked around many regulations concerning coronavirus, from a mandatory summer school program to social distancing restrictions.

Wilson said not bringing the playgrounds back until September “might be a challenge for the community.”

In general, Spengler said the summer is looking rough for the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities. The required summer school means a diminished number of students to participate in programs, and Spengler said many of the city’s parks facilities have been repurposed for other coronavirus related uses.

Spengler said the department is only looking at offering programs for 20% of the usual population served and will put together “needs-based enrollment.”

Meanwhile, Health Director Dr. Stephen Haering said that the city is fully expecting the number of COVID-19 cases to increase as the city moves into Phase I of reopening. Haering reminded the Council that the goal of the quarantine was not to eliminate the virus but slow the spread enough to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“The virus is still with us, and it’s going to be with us for some time,” Haering said. “You’re still going to be safer at home, particularly for those who are most vulnerable. Our numbers will go up. We’re anticipating it will go up. Look at Georgia after the relaxation of the stay at home order. The goal is to keep the numbers from going up so high that we’re not in a situation like Italy where the hospital capacity is exceeded by the demand.”

Haering said the x-factor is how human behavior will impact the spread. Officials have warned the public that reopening does not throw social distancing precautions out the window, but many in Alexandria have had difficulty adhering to restrictions even before the phased reopening.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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