With COVID-19 numbers sliding, the Phoenix City Council unanimously approved a plan Tuesday that reopened many parks amenities beginning Wednesday and just in time for Easter weekend, April 3-4, when local parks are often packed.
The plan, proposed by Phoenix Parks and Recreation Director Cynthia Aguilar and made in consultation with health experts, reopened ramadas and picnic tables, basketball and volleyball courts, outdoor fitness equipment, sports complexes and athletic fields.
And the city also announced that select pools around Phoenix will be open beginning May 29, but pool activities will be limited. Swim and dive teams, water basketball leagues and other aquatics activities will not be allowed in city pools.
“The COVID numbers are encouraging and suggest that we are headed in the right direction,” Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said in a statement released by the city. “From the start, we’ve made data- and science-based decisions to ensure the safety and well-being of Phoenix residents.”
Gallego said that the “decision to cautiously and carefully return to play” was made by following science.
“Yet, while we want our residents, especially children, to get out into the fresh air, we need to remember that the pandemic is not over,” Gallego said. “I encourage every individual to stay vigilant and take safety precautions, including masks and physical distancing.”
With park facilities open, the city is again taking reservations for games and local tournaments with modifications, such as requiring groups of over 50 people to submit a safety plan showing how the group will meet the city’s return-to-play guidelines, which include requiring masks and social distancing.
“We are mindful that these outdoor environments are lower risk,” said Dr. Popescu, a public health consultant for the City of Phoenix. “So this is a nice incremental strategy to reopening a really important piece of community right now, which are parks and pools.”
Due to current staffing levels, only 12 of the city’s 29 public pools will open this season, including the Cortez, Deer Valley, El Prado, Encanto, Falcon, Maryvale, Paradise Valley, Pecos, Perry, Starlight, Sunnyslope and University pools.
However, the pool season will remain the same as in the past, with pools open this year from May 29th through Aug. 1 and with an extended season running through Sept. 6.
The pool season will emphasize open-swim sessions and swimming lessons. All pools will operate at a limited capacity with enhanced cleaning protocols.
According to the city plan, modifications will be made to open-swim and swim-lesson formats, such as implementing reservable blocks of time for free swim, and cleaning between groups.
Those participating in the Kool Kids program, youth age 17 and younger, will receive free admission to open swims this year.
Following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), parks have remained open throughout the pandemic but with some amenities temporarily closed.
The most recent park amenity closures were put in place Dec. 3. At that time, Phoenix was in the Arizona Department of Health Services’ “substantial spread” category, with more than 100 cases for every 100,000 people – the highest of three benchmarks used to track COVID-19 under CDC recommendations.
The closures were to remain in place until Phoenix returned to the moderate spread category.
“We have been monitoring the COVID trends closely,” Aguilar said. “And based on the original benchmarks, we were approaching the moderate range.”
Then on March 3, based on CDC guidance, ADHS revised the community transmission indicators and community risk levels. Phoenix now lands in the second-lowest of four categories with 10-49 new cases for every 100,000 people over the previous seven days.
What it all means is, under the revised system, Phoenix now falls into the “moderate transmission” level for the percentage of positive cases and the “substantial spread” range for transmission of total new cases with less than a 10-percent positivity rate.
“Due to the steady decline in both of these indicators, we are recommending that we reopen outdoor park amenities with modifications.” Aguliar said.
Among the modifications is a plan for Easter weekend to ensure the health and safety of park patrons.
Easter is historically one of the busiest weekends at local parks, and they will be open. However, according to the city, parking lots that are not accessible in accordance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements will be closed.
There will also be a strong presence of Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department staff to help answer questions and make sure users are adhering to protocols in an effort to minimize the potential of large group gatherings.
Story by Jenna Mazel, Cronkite News