Weighing risks in parks

Outdoor transmission rare for COVID-19

People gather at Lyndale Park
People gather at Lyndale Park near Lake Harriet on a warm day in late April. Photo by Andrew Hazzard

Nets in tennis courts had been removed by May 1, basketball hoops had been blocked with plywood and playgrounds in the city’s parks had been marked closed with neon-orange signs.

The outdoors is seen as a place of respite during the coronavirus pandemic, but it remains unclear how exactly people should exercise caution in the open air. Park Board Superintendent Al Bangoura said his staff has been adjusting permitted activities based on orders from Gov. Tim Walz, recommendations from city and state health officials, observations made by park staff and complaints heard from the public.

“We have responded as the data has changed,” Bangoura told commissioners at a May 6 meeting.

Several commissioners asked for specifics on what data park administrators are using and what benchmarks need to be seen to permit more activities, but with a new disease like COVID-19, Bangoura said, the Park Board is mostly relying on the advice of experts and other agencies.

There are many unknowns surrounding the coronavirus, but outdoor transmission of the disease appears to be rare.

“The primary concern with outdoor activities would be prolonged, close contact among a group of people, as in a basketball or soccer game,” Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) spokesperson Doug Schultz said.

People could also be at risk, he said, if they touch a surface like playground equipment that an infected person recently touched. Right now, MDH doesn’t know of any cases believed to be contracted solely through outdoor transmission, though Schultz said making that determination would be “almost impossible.”

Coronavirus is primarily spread through respiratory droplets expelled when people cough, sneeze or simply speak. How long you are near someone who is carrying the virus is key.

“It’s not so much the outdoors that should scare you but how much time you’re going to be spending with people,” said Kumi Smith, an assistant professor of epidemiology and community at the University of Minnesota.

In general, walking, running or biking past others while outdoors is safe, Smith said. Outdoor air circulates much more than indoor air, which makes it harder for the virus to leap from one host to another. For prolonged contact or engagement, social distancing of at least 6 feet should be maintained, even outside, but Smith said people shouldn’t view everyone on the sidewalk as a potential threat.

“There’s a little bit of over-cautiousness when it comes to avoiding strangers and under-cautiousness when it comes to family and friends,” Smith said.

Meeting friends outside for a picnic is fine, but social distancing should be maintained, she said.

Smith doesn’t wear a mask when walking or biking outdoors, but recommends wearing one inside grocery or retail stores, or for situations where you’ll be in conversation.

A lot of it comes down to what people are comfortable with, Smith said. The main issue in the U.S. is a lack of sufficient testing, she said, which makes it hard to know just how many people are sick and makes it so people have to evaluate risk for themselves.  Being outside is broadly considered good for physical and mental health, but if doing so causes someone stress, it might not be worth it.

“I do think there is a benefit that should be weighed,” she said.

A dancer keeps a social distance
A dancer keeps a social distance while enjoying the sun on April 22 in Kenwood Park. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Different timelines

Across the country, state and city, park departments have taken various approaches to opening and closing spaces. In major cities like Chicago, playgrounds, basketball hoops and tennis nets have been down since March and major park spaces have been closed. An April survey by the National Recreation and Park Association found that nationwide 96% of agencies had closed playgrounds, 88% had closed skateparks and 86% had closed sport fields and courts.

The city’s Health Department recommended the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) close its basketball courts on April 10 due to concerns over social distancing. At the time, the Park Board was in the process of redeploying recreation center staff as “ambassadors” to discourage group play and promote social distancing and wanted to try outreach before closing amenities.

“Despite our efforts at outreach and education, Minneapolis park users continued to congregate and not practice social distancing,” Bangoura said.

On April 23, Minneapolis health officials requested the closure of group congregating points like basketball courts, tennis courts, skateparks and soccer and ball fields. The next day, the MPRB announced those amenities would close within a week.

“I think the reason they put those measures in is to reduce the amount of crowding as weather gets better,” Smith said, adding she believes the measures are precautionary.

Some Park Board commissioners have expressed concerns that the MPRB is permitting crowding of walkers, runners and bikers around the Chain of Lakes and other major destinations by opening parkway streets to pedestrians, but punishing those who use the parks to play court sports.

“My concern is we are micromanaging one set of people,” Commissioner Kale Severson (District 2) said.

Across the river in St. Paul, basketball courts and tennis nets were removed on April 8, much earlier than Minneapolis. On May 1, the day Minneapolis was completing its closure of basketball and tennis courts, St. Paul began reopening those areas.

St. Paul is in the midst of a pilot program that has opened tennis and basketball courts at 15 parks across the city, according to recreation services manager Andy Rodriguez. In St. Paul, rec center staff are working to oversee play at those parks during the pilot program. Those workers are focusing on education, not enforcement, he said. The rules discourage doubles play and encourage constant ball-swapping for tennis players. Staff try to steer court users away from pickup games and toward shooting contests like H-O-R-S-E (one group changed it to C-O-V-I-D, Rodriguez said).

Some scenarios have been difficult for staff to evaluate, Rodriguez said. One group of young men playing pickup basketball told park staff they were all either family or roommates, and there’s no real way for workers to verify that.

“It’s kind of an honor system,” Rodriguez said.

Currently in Minneapolis, the plan is to reopen four basketball courts and four tennis areas around the city on May 18, the current end point of Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order. Those courts will be open for time-scheduled play for members of the same household and will be overseen by a group of volunteers, Bangoura said. The plan is to add more courts across the city over time. Minneapolis and St. Paul park officials said they are in contact with each other on best practices.

“At the end of the day, we’re aligned — just on different timelines,” Rodriguez said.