City Commission Votes to Reopen Some Parks

Common Grounds Park

One week after closing most city parks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Lakeland City Commissioners today moved to reopen some by Thursday. Parks that will reopen include open-air facilities that commissioners feel can accommodate social distancing: trails, tennis courts, dog parks, boat ramps and the Cleveland Heights Golf Course.

Buildings within parks will remain closed, as well as ball fields, basketball courts, playgrounds and restrooms. Parks and Recreation staffers have Tuesday and Wednesday to draft plans for specifically which facilities will reopen and which will remain closed.

Commissioners based their decision in part on what they called an unintended consequence of last week’s parks closure: People seeking recreation have crowded the Lake Hollingsworth trail, and the lakefronts at Lakes Mirror and Wire.

The thought is that by providing more places for outdoor recreation, the city can avoid the kinds of crowds that have kept social distancing difficult at Lake Hollingsworth.

(A personal observation: Granted that it’s impossible to keep six feet from passing strangers on the Lake Hollingsworth trail, I saw far more large groups walking the lake just before sundown last Monday — the day the park closure passed — than today, as families prepare for distance-learning classes after spring break for many students.)

Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley cast the lone vote against reopening parks. She had made last week’s motion to close the parks. It passed 5-2, with Commissioners Scott Franklin and Stephanie Madden opposing it as too rigid.

McCarley said today she is fine with keeping trails open but argued that some activities will draw crowds and also that city employees could be exposed to health risks.

She also said it would take a lot of resources to “clean and clean and clean” golf carts after each use, as City Manager Tony Delgado said would be done at Cleveland Heights. Other than the golf courses, the city is avoiding reopening playgrounds and other facilities that will take repeat sanitizing.

The need for repeated cleanings and difficulty in maintaining social distancing were among the reasons Delgado gave for removing tables and chairs at Munn Park, which is expected to happen Tuesday morning. Munn Park remains open, and the benches will stay in place.

Today’s meeting was held via teleconference with many commissioners and officials attending via video from their homes or offices.

In keeping with social distancing measures, most commissioners and city staff attended the meeting via teleconference. It was broadcast live online and on the city’s cable channels, and citizens could comment via email. Some seats spaced six feet apart were available at City Hall for citizens who wanted to attend in person.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden, who uncharacteristically said little during the meeting, made the motion to loosen the park closings:

“After hearing that everyone is following the president’s lead to follow social distancing for the next month, and in consultation with residents who feel that Lake Hollingsworth, Lake Mirror and downtown are getting too congested due to our last closure of all parks last week, and in consultation with Bob Donahay, the director of Parks and Rec, I would like to move to reopen recreational amenities that will allow for social distancing, such as dog parks, tennis courts, pickleball courts, boat ramps, the golf course, and that specifically opens up those employees to open the gates to Three Parks Trail in the morning and evening and then also the trails in Dobbins, Common Ground, Cook Park, and Lake Parker.”

At the prompting of Commissioner Phillip Walker, the motion was amended to include the tennis courts at Simpson Park and the adjacent Bella Vista Trail.

Currently closed, the Three Parks Trail is scheduled to reopen Thursday, as is the Cleveland Heights Golf Course in the background.

In response to a question from Mayor Bill Mutz, Madden said the openings would not include areas “that would have to be sanitized, no picnics, benches, no water fountains; no restrooms would be open. Only fresh-air opportunities to exercise safely with six feet of social distancing.”

Commissioners plan to review the policy at a future meeting, though no date was set today.

A news release issued after the meeting also listed these closures:

“Parks and Recreation indoor facilities and offices will remain closed at this time. These facilities include: Main Library, Larry Jackson Branch Library, eLibrary, Simpson Park Community Center, Kelly Recreation Complex, Coleman-Bush Building, Gandy Pool, Lake Mirror Complex, the Splash Pad at Barnett Family Park. The Cemeteries Office and the Parks & Recreation Rental office are closed for walk-ins; however, they are available to answer questions and make payments via phone and email.”

Residents had been given a chance to submit comments by email about the topics the commissioners took up today. Out of 127 people who wrote prior to the meeting, by far the largest group — 65 — urged commissioners to close all city functions and close non-essential businesses, according to city Communications Director Kevin Cook.

Many more emails came during the meeting, most of them urging the city to keep facilities closed, he said. All of the emails will be forwarded to commissioners.

As of 6 p.m. today, 63 COVID-19 cases had been reported in Polk County, up from 28 on Thursday evening. Twenty-nine of the local cases involve hospitalizations. Twelve of the reported cases list Lakeland as the city. No local deaths have been reported.

In the following video from today’s meeting, which focuses on coronavirus concerns, the parks discussion starts at 57:17:

Earlier in the meeting, Mutz discussed his previous statements that non-essential businesses should close and a safer-at-home order should be issued to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

He did not push for that at today’s meeting, saying the decision should be made countywide, as was done in nearby Hillsborough, Pinellas, Osceola and Orange counties.

Mutz provided the text he spoke from, as requested by LkldNow:

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