Two weeks after Harris County’s Stay Home-Work Safe order went into effect, Houston’s public parks remained open as of April 3, but officials continue to balance social distancing with concerns about residents’ physical and mental well-being during the coronavirus outbreak.
However, closing several or all of the parks is not off the table, said Steve Wright, head of the Houston Parks Department.
“It’s evolving very rapidly,” he said, adding that the department briefs the mayor’s office three times a week.
For now, parks officials are working to ensure visitors keep safe distances from each other and have blocked off shared amenities such as community centers, exercise equipment and playgrounds.
“Unfortunately over the weekend, we noticed all these closures drove people outside,” he said. “We noticed larger groups on the basketball courts and spectators, and so we decided to try to remove the temptation. As of today, we have either removed or secured all the basketball rims at every park. ... We have almost 500 of them.”
The department has also deployed a rotation of 66 staffers to high priority parks to serve as “park monitors.” The monitors are tasked with reminding residents to keep distance from each other and avoid congregating in groups larger than 10. The monitors report back to Wright about the volume of visitors at the city’s most popular parks so he can report that information to Mayor Sylvester Turner.
Turner has told reporters repeatedly that the city is interested in keeping parks open as long as it can safely do so. Enforcing distancing or keeping residents out of the city’s 380 parks if they close could be difficult as well, Wright said.
“Enforcement would be a challenge given the size and scope and things. We’re spread out over 600 square miles and there could be some unintended consequences,” he said. “It would take away people’s ability to get out for their physical and mental health."
For now, Wright is looking at ways to deploy more park monitors, possibly from other city departments, and beginning April 3, the department is sharing the rotation schedule with the Houston Police Department so they can allocate officers when possible.
The parks department also cannot enforce protocols on neighborhood parks that are not run by the city, Wright said, although the department has been sharing best practices from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention via social media.
Holly Smith, board president of Friends of Mandell Park in Montrose said her group took it upon themselves to cancel group events, including gardening demonstrations and live music performances from local musicians.
“This whole situation is new to everyone and I think a lot of times you can use common sense. but I also think it’s always nice to have a plan A, B, C,” Smith said.
In the Heights, Donovan Park is closed until further notice. Houston Heights Association Executive Director, Emily Guyre said the decision was made to follow the Houston Parks Department’s protocols on playground equipment. The Association did keep its other park, Marmion Park, open.
As residents navigate busier parks while coronavirus is spreading, Beth White, president and CEO of the Houston Parks Board, said she encourages them to explore a smaller, or less familiar park.
“Our system is so vast,” she said. “We have room for people to spread out. We have greenways, trails, bike lanes, sidewalks, parks."
The HPB has led the development of the 150 miles of connected bayou greenways, which are nearing completion of an eight-year, $220 million investment. White said the opportunity for Houston's parks to shine should not be overlooked.
"I hope this experience is going to reinforce the importance of the work we have underway,” White said. "It is so important to our present moment but is even more important to our future, to make a city that is more livable and resilient to these kinds of episodes.”
Matt Dulin contributed to this story.
Houston parks stay open with new distancing measures in effect
As of April 3, most Houston-area parks remain open with social distancing rules in effect. (Marie Leonard/Community Impact Newspaper)