The Woodlands Township directors consider reopening of public spaces, Harris County mask requirements

The Woodlands Township board of directors met via videoconference for a regular meeting April 22. The meeting featured the swearing in of Director Jason Nelson, who was appointed to replace former Director Brian Boniface. (Screenshot via The Woodlands Township)
The Woodlands Township board of directors met via videoconference for a regular meeting April 22. The meeting featured the swearing in of Director Jason Nelson, who was appointed to replace former Director Brian Boniface. (Screenshot via The Woodlands Township)

The Woodlands Township board of directors met via videoconference for a regular meeting April 22. The meeting featured the swearing in of Director Jason Nelson, who was appointed to replace former Director Brian Boniface. (Screenshot via The Woodlands Township)

The Woodlands Township will seek to reopen its public spaces and resume community programs through several phases this year, in line with state and federal guidelines focused on the progression from current closures and distancing standards.



At an April 22 board of directors meeting, The Woodlands officials, including Parks & Recreation Director Chris Nunes, discussed the township’s reopening outline. The three-phase approach will allow The Woodlands residents to return to parks, playgrounds and various community programming once local milestones related to a reduction in confirmed COVID-19 cases have been met. The three phases are designed around the return to public spaces and activities suitable for 10 people, 50 people and eventually, an unrestricted number of people.



Nunes said township staff have been developing the approach for two weeks, and accelerated their planning after President Donald Trump released a federal outline for reopening the U.S. economy April 16. Officials said the start of the first phase will be contingent on recording a two-week downturn in confirmed coronavirus cases in the area as well as on reopening guidance from Harris and Montgomery counties and state and federal governments.



“Based on the gating criteria that was identified, [we’re] really looking at a 14-day downward trajectory [of coronavirus cases]. We don’t know if that’s really for Montgomery County, we believe that the Montgomery County judge will follow that threshold, but we don’t know what Harris County [will do],” Nunes said. “Some parks theoretically might be open because they’re in Montgomery County; others might not be open in Harris County. ... Overall, we’re trying to manage the number of amenities by the number of people.”



The first phase would include the reopening of public restrooms, dog parks and the township boat house; private or small-group aquatics activities; and limited programming at recreation centers. Basketball, tennis and volleyball courts would also reopen with limited rims and netting to maintain 10-person limits.



The second phase would expand to facilitate 50-person activities, with fully equipped athletic courts, aquatics programs and larger parks. Recreation centers, playgrounds and Texas Treeventures would also reopen in this phase.



Nunes said the final phase would represent a return to unrestricted community programs and facilities and would be reached through a collaboration of township staff and residents following the previous phases' guidelines before a full reopening.



“We’re really trying to manage the numbers [and] manage social distancing to the best of our ability, but it takes both staff managing the social distancing but also residents taking it upon themselves to [socially] distance themselves in the parks,” he said.



After Nunes’ presentation, board members thanked residents for their adherence to the township’s guidance on social distancing over the past several weeks and expressed approval for a plan to make local amenities accessible again in line with the latest health guidelines.



“The one thing that has been proven during this entire process is that the vast majority of our residents understand their responsibility to act responsibly in this manner,” Director Bruce Rieser said. “Everybody needs to be smart [and] maintain social distancing, [so] let’s get on with it.”



Directors unanimously approved the parks and recreation plan to be rolled out in line with government and safety guidelines in a 7-0 vote. They also approved the reopening of township tennis courts on a limited basis this week, and Nunes said courts with alternating nets would be available for resident use by April 24.



Earlier in the meeting, board members also discussed Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s announcement that county residents would be required to wear face masks in public beginning April 27. Board members noted the disparate effect that the order will have on The Woodlands residents in Harris County, including the Village of Creekside Park, and requested the township formally object to the order’s implementation.



“I think that’s onerous and basically unconstitutional,” Director Shelley Sekula-Gibbs said. “I can see strongly recommending [masks], but I cannot see how somebody is going to actually enforce a $1,000 fine of an individual for not wearing a mask especially when the epidemic is on the downhill side. We supposedly peaked on the 8th or 9th of this month, so it just seems like this is a draconian measure.”



After initially considering possible legal action against the order, all board members voted to submit a letter to Hidalgo and Attorney General Ken Paxton opposing the Harris County order.



“There needs to be a consistent standard throughout Texas, and it should be up to the state officials to make these decisions because we’re not the only community that sits in multiple counties,” Rieser said.



The April 22 session also included the swearing in of Director Jason Nelson, who was selected by the board April 16 to fill the vacant seat of former Director Brian Boniface. Boniface resigned earlier this month to provide emergency coronavirus aid with the U.S. Army Reserves. Nelson also serves as a pastor at Tomball's Rose Hill United Methodist Church.

By Ben Thompson
Ben joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2019 and is a reporter for The Woodlands edition.


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