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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Gainesville parks make COVID-19 adjustments, reopen playgrounds

<p dir="ltr">Fred Cone Park’s main playground had a shade sail installed in early 2018.</p>

Fred Cone Park’s main playground had a shade sail installed in early 2018.

After rolling out of bed on a crisp October morning, Gerrica Lamothe changes into her workout clothes, fills up her water bottle and grabs her AirPods. She hops into her blue PT Cruiser and makes a three-mile drive to Depot Park. 

The 19-year-old UF behavioral and cognitive neuroscience sophomore parks, stretches and begins her run through the park’s winding trails.

Lamothe said she has jogged at Depot Park since November. She used to share the trails with many others but now only three or four people join her during her morning jogs.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gainesville parks adjusted to the latest CDC guidelines, which include social distancing, masks and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces. Over 50 city parks are open, but their capacity is limited to 50%.

During the pandemic, running outdoors has become an outlet for Lamothe. Depot Park is the perfect environment for her to escape stress, take a break from studying and maintain a positive mindset, she said.

Playgrounds have been closed since March, but the city reopened them Oct. 16 at eight parks: Albert Ray Massey, Fred Cone, Possum Creek, Reserve, Roper, Smokey Bear, T.B. McPherson and San Felasco, City Commissioner David Arreola said. The remaining playgrounds opened last Friday.

Masks and social distancing are required, and equipment is regularly sanitized.

Arreola said the city is trusting the public to follow the playground guidelines.

“As long as everyone maintains the same safety guidelines we've all been sort of following throughout this year, we should trust the public to do that to enjoy the public parks again,” he said.

The trails that Lamothe enjoys as well as all open-air spaces are open at all parks, said Roxy Gonzalez, assistant director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Affairs. Park spaces and pavilions aren’t available for rent.

Gathering areas remain closed, Gonzalez said. At Depot Park, some picnic tables are roped off, Lamothe said.

Signs promoting social distancing are posted throughout parks, Gonzalez said, but rules are self-policed by other visitors. Social distancing circles are located throughout to provide a safe zone for people who may feel uncomfortable.

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“We’ve also drawn out a bunch of little figures on our walk paths that are 6 feet a part to show the little kids,” Gonzalez said.

If large groups gather, staff intervenes to minimize the crowding, she said.

Depot Park’s employees disinfect railings, benches and other high-touch surfaces every other hour, Gonzalez said. All other parks are sanitized once a week.

After the department increased their contract with the city, restrooms are cleaned multiple times per day, she said.

“We have to think outside the box and look at our new normal,” she said. “Things are only going to get better because we’re looking at ways to be able to assist the community and give them more activities to do outdoors.”

The city’s nature parks enforce similar safety guidelines. All open-air spaces and trails are opened, and restrooms are regularly sanitized.

Sammie Osley, a 20-year-old UF plant science junior, visits Morningside Nature Center every other week. The quiet, empty trails calm her during the pandemic, she said.

“I feel like when you’re outdoors you can forget about the pandemic for a little bit,” she said. “Something as simple as going on a walk without being concerned for your safety is precious right now.”

During the pandemic, the park began offering free outdoor yoga classes where participants spread out in an open clearing in the woods to maintain distance, she said.

“The public needs places to just get out, clear their minds and just have some fresh air,” she said. “Everyone's been stuck inside looking at a screen.”

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