On Wednesday the state of California decided to do its best “Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” impression as officials collectively said “Let them play.”
The state reversed the outdoor playground ban in its regional stay-home order, which is now in effect for the state’s southern half and many Bay Area counties.
Playgrounds had previously been open in Vallejo, but due to the reversal by Governor Newsom Vallejo residents won’t have to worry about them closing in the future if Solano County goes into a shelter-in-place order sometime this month. Solano County officials have said that unlike some nearby counties like San Francisco, Alameda and Contra Costa, it will not begin a stay-at-home order until the Bay Area Region’s ICU capacity is under 15 percent.
According to https://covid19.ca.gov/stay-home-except-for-essential-needs/#regional at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, the region is at a 20.9 percent capacity.
The California Department of Public Health confirmed the update Wednesday.
“Playgrounds may remain open to facilitate physically distanced personal health and wellness through outdoor exercise,” the department said in a statement. “Playgrounds located on schools that remain open for in-person instruction, and not accessible by the general public, may remain open and must follow guidance for schools and school-based programs.”
Gabriel Lanusse, general manager of the Greater Vallejo Recreation District, said he wasn’t surprised at the switch.
“We want people to be outdoors on the playgrounds as long as they are wearing their masks and keeping six feet apart,” Lanusse said. “We have been zigging and zagging this whole time during the pandemic, but we have a flexible staff that has made everything work.”
Playgrounds that are free to the public remain open, but any park that has a price of admission is remaining closed, which is why Children’s Wonderland hasn’t reopened.
While playgrounds will remain open in Vallejo, restrooms at those playgrounds may or may not be open. Lanusse mentioned that a restroom near the tennis courts at Amador Street is open and another in a park in Glen Cove, but most of the time they are not and that’s one of the problems with keeping parks and playgrounds open.
“The bad part about keeping them open is the excessive use of them and trying to keep them clean,” Lanusse said. “With the restrooms closed people have been using the bushes or whatever they can. There have been a lot of people living in their cars in the park and at the end of the day the dump their garbage in the parks before they leave at night.”
Lanusse said that many people who didn’t even know they lived next to a park or playground are now discovering them.
“We get a lot of comments from people saying, ‘I never knew about this playground two blocks from my house’ or ‘I never knew you changed something in the park,” Lanusse said. “So more people are now stopping by the parks to enjoy them. I mean, some people are trapped inside in small surroundings all day, so it’s good for them to get outside every once in a while.”
The new restrictions on outdoor activities — which public health officials have repeatedly stressed pose a lower risk from the respiratory virus because of air circulation — drew pushback before Wednesday. Critics questioned why shopping malls and stores were allowed to remain open at reduced capacity indoors while playgrounds, outdoor dining areas at restaurants and overnight campgrounds were ordered closed.
On Friday, a dozen lawmakers led by state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, wrote Gov. Gavin Newsom urging him to consider.
The lawmakers added that for many poor families living in urban apartment complexes, the neighborhood park is the only place their kids can go outside to play.
Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency, defended the restrictions Tuesday, arguing they were intended to encourage people to stay home and avoid mixing with others outside their households.
“We have reached a point where COVID-19 is so widespread in California that just leaving the house is a risky behavior,” Ghaly said Tuesday. “It’s about that fact that any mixing among households presents a risk of disease transmission.”
But by Wednesday morning, the state’s guidance for playgrounds on its covid.ca.gov website shifted. The state public health department did not offer an explanation for the change.
“Every parent knows how important playgrounds are for our youngest Californians,” Gonzalez said Wednesday. “A huge thank you to Governor Newsom for hearing our collective concern and rethinking how we can open play structures for our kids.”
Bay Area News Group reporter John Woolfork contributed to this story.