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Petaluma Parks: Signs of the times

On Monday, March 23 - less than a week after it was announced that all parking lots would be free at regional parks throughout Sonoma County - the County’s health officer, Dr. Sundari R. Mase, handed down another order. By midnight of that evening, all parks in the county - of any size or description - were to be closed to the public until further notice. That includes the 46 parks maintained by Petaluma’s Parks and Recreation Department, its regional parks, open spaces and all private parks maintained by Home Owners Associations, nonprofits and the like.

By the next morning, plastic A-frames had been installed at the primary entrances of nearly all Petaluma parks, bearing notices in English and Spanish that the facility - from its walkways to its benches to its playgrounds - was off limits.

“When the order came down from the county to close all Petaluma Parks, I have to admit we were heartbroken,” allows Drew Halter, Deputy Director of Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department. “We’d hoped the parks could maybe be a part of how we all get through this. We hoped that people would practice proper social distancing. But that order supersedes our jurisdiction, and it was pretty implicit. So for the good of our community and the safety of our residents and park users, we have closed the parks.”

There is one slender exemption, Halter points out, clearly described in the order from Dr. Mase.

To quote the order (see sidebar), “Paved multi-use pathways outside of park boundaries remain open, except to bicycles and horses.”

“So Lynch Creek Trail, for example, which crosses the city, remains open for walking, in any sections that don’t run through parks,” says Halter. The much-used trail, along with similar pathways around the county, has been closed to cyclists and equestrians, however, not that Lynch Creek sees a lot of horseback riders on a daily basis (or ever). The reason for that exclusion is that bikes take up a disproportionate amount of the trail, and when passing pedestrians, they can create a point-of-contact much smaller than the recommended 6-foot minimum.

“For the most part, we’ve seen close to full compliance with the order,” says Halter, adding, “But we’ve seen some instances of people gathering in ways that are unsafe. I do have faith that with a little more time and education about why the order was made, we will have full compliance for the run of this situation.”

Halter acknowledges that the decision to close the parks has drawn opposition from some community members, many of which have suggested alternatives to full closure. These suggestions include placing city personnel in the parks to enforce the social distancing that many had been openly ignoring in the days just previous to the health officer order. Another suggestion is to allow smaller numbers of people in the parks, perhaps separating them into groups according to the alphabetical beginning of their last name, along the lines of what was done during the gas shortage of the 1970s.

Halter explains that such measures are either beyond the scope of the city to carry out effectively, or in direct conflict with the goal of limiting contact. To the latter suggestion, the act of having personnel examine visitors’ identification to determine if they are the correct alphabetical designation for that day would create virus-transmissible situations rather than eliminate them. As for the former idea - placing Parks and Recreation worked in the parks to keep people 6-feet apart, the city simply does not have the staff, Halter points out.

“As of now, we are working with a four-person rotating maintenance crew responsible for 46 parks,” he says. “It’s not feasible to post people everywhere to remind people to follow the social distancing rules. The intent of the order to close the parks is to impress upon the community the urgency of social distancing. It’s an extreme measure, yes, but this is an extreme situation, and we have to model this ourselves.”

Halter goes on to say that the park closure order does not stop at city and county maintained parks. Any public gathering space with benches, tables and play or sports equipment - including volleyball and basketball courts on business center property - are to be considered closed until further notice.

Asked how long the parks are expected to be closed, Halter says, “As long as it takes. We have to give this our all to slow the spread of the virus.”

Until that time, Halter says the City has been hard at work developing alternatives to open park and recreational facilities. As of this week, the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department has launched what it’s calling the Virtual Recreation Center.” It’s an expanding and evolving online hub of information and links, offering ways to exercise through internet classes, suggestions of craft projects for kids, educational offerings and a number of fitness tips. The Virtual Recreation Center can be found at CityofPetaluma.org/departments/virtual-recreation-center.

Halter says, as excited as the Parks and Recreation Department is about offering this new resource, he knows that for many, there is simply no way to replace the experience of exploring a non-virtual park or open space.

“We know this is hard, but we’re confident that everyone will join in this effort to slow the spread, as hard as it might be, because it’s necessary,” he says. “But we do hear your frustration, and we share it. Believe me, nobody is more anxious to get through this and get back to business.”

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