City parks and trails in Lakeland will re-open gradually, starting Friday, city commissioners decided today. Openings will focus on “passive” parks where social distancing can be maintained, including walking trails, lake shores, tennis courts, boat ramps, Munn Park and the Cleveland Heights Golf Course. Still closed: playgrounds, athletic fields, basketball courts, recreation centers, the skate park.

The popular Lake Hollingsworth trail is scheduled to re-open on Saturday. That’s the soonest it can be ready for the public because of resurfacing work that’s scheduled to end on Wednesday, City Manager Tony Delgado said.

Signs prohibiting cars from parking on the grass along the west side of Lake Hollingsworth will remain in place. Commissioner Bill Read suggested that people using the Lake Hollingsworth path be asked to all move clockwise to maintain social distancing.

Delgado said it isn’t feasible to monitor and scold people who walk the other direction, but said signs could be put up to encourage one-way walking.

As of Tuesday morning, most of the asphalt is down on the Lake Hollingsworth trail.

The unanimous vote to begin re-opening parks came after Delgado said Polk County government officials said on a conference call this morning that they will re-open passive recreation facilities on Friday.

After the vote, Mayor Bill Mutz summed it up this way: “As Commissioner McLeod pointed out, we didn’t know the severity of the crisis and how it would ramp up and we were trying to be as drastic as necessary (when the commission voted to close parks last month.) We don’t want to concern citizens that we’re relaxing too quickly, either. This is a measurement of staying in tandem with the county. That and releasing people for more exercise are our principal motivations.”

The city golf course and tennis courses will re-open under guidelines for social distancing recommended by the Professional Golf Association and the United States Tennis Association. For example, golfers who are not related will not be able to share carts at Cleveland Heights.

 While recreation centers and playgrounds are closed for now, they “could be part of a phase two opening in the near future as long as we meet federal and state safety requirements,” Delgado said.

At Munn Park, there are no immediate plans to return the metal tables and chairs that were removed last month.

Discussion focused for several minutes on whether Munn Park should re-open. Asked for her opinion, Julie Townsend, who heads the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority, said it’s fine for people to walk through the park but expressed concern that “we’re going to see a lot of folks who have time on their hands sitting closely together not abiding by the six-foot rule.”

The Munn Park discussion was ended by a comment Commissioner Scott Franklin, who initiated the park discussion and made the motion to re-open them:

“I’m at a point where I’m looking to find ways to get to yes and reopening and treat people responsibly, and if people screw it up then we’ll take it away.”

Business effects

The park discussion came near the end of a three-hour meeting dominated by presentations about how local businesses are being affected by social distancing and Gov. Ron DeSantis’ order closing non-essential businesses.

Presenters and the organizations they represent were:

Long led off with preliminary results of a survey of small business owners conducted last week. She said tonight she plans to present more complete results to the Polk County Commission on Friday.

See the preliminary results here or at the end of this article.

With nearly 500 individuals responding representing 231 Lakeland businesses, the survey found that 49.2% are generating little or no income during the coronavirus restrictions but a large majority have retained their employees.

Asked about how long their businesses can survive a shutdown, 3.5% said they would definitely or likely close if it lasts another week, but 24.5% said they would definitely or likely close if it lasts another two months.

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Townsend spoke about downtown businesses, saying that all but three restaurants are offering takeout and delivery but report that revenues are down 70 to 90 percent. Most downtown retailers are closed with a few offering essential items on a drive-up basis and more pivoting to online sales.

Many downtown property owners are deferring rent payments but few are reducing or forgiving rents, so rent payments are a major concern for most tenants, she said.

Mitchell has contacted dozens of minority business owner. An insurance agency has had to close, costing six jobs, he said, and many people told him that discussions with customers and clients become counseling sessions on loss and mortality.

The Chamber of Commerce’s Skeates proposed the creation of a broad-based Reopen Lakeland Task Force “to assist city officials in the development of a set of priorities and guidelines for reopening our community and economy while maintaining public health and safety.”

The task force would be chaired by the mayor and report to the City Commission and include representatives of a wide range of industries.

The Lakeland Economic Development Council’s Scruggs presented a new video about Lakeland’s resilience and focused his comments on planning for the future.

An LEDC initiative called “The Other Side” asks questions about life after the pandemic that should help guide economic development decisions, Scruggs said.

The first question is: How might we capitalize on new economic development trends on the other side? 

It appears e-commerce will emerge stronger, Scruggs said, and urged the city to target those companies with the $500,000 in incentives commissioners approved for manufacturing plants in October.

The second question involves talent recruitment and retention and leads to thoughts about possible growth in the health-care field and working from home now that people are comfortable with remote-working tools.

The last question involves migration patterns, and Scruggs said Lakeland should target efforts toward attracting skilled talent from areas hit hardest by COVID-19.

BRIDGE Local Survey – Preliminary Results:

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Barry Friedman founded in 2015 as the culmination of a career in print and digital journalism. Since 1982, he has used the tools of reporting, editing and content curation to help people in Lakeland understand their community better.

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