On Friday morning, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his New York State on PAUSE plan, which intends to keep as many New Yorkers as possible in their homes and away from each other to help lessen the spread of COVID-19. While the most stringent rules are for New Yorkers over the age of 70, he emphasized that the less vulnerable population needed to obey the regulations too, declaring any non-essential gatherings prohibited, and noting that New Yorkers need to stay six feet away from each other when they go out.
"'Outdoor recreation' is a solitary recreational exercise," Cuomo said. "It's running, hiking. It's not playing basketball with five other people. That's not what it is. It's not laying in a park with ten other people and sharing a beer. That's not what this is. There are people and places in New York City where it looks like life as usual. No, this is not life as usual. Accept it and realize it and deal with it."
During his briefing on Saturday morning he addressed the parks again, noting: "There's a significant amount of non-compliance, especially in New York City, especially in parks. I'm gonna go down there today, I want to see what the situation is myself."
Cuomo's emphasis on this during the briefing was pointed—because New Yorkers have been lax about keeping their distance this week, to put it mildly.
"You keep your distance," said Henrik Kyle, who was exercising in a crowded outdoor gym at East River Park on Friday afternoon. Wasn't he concerned about touching equipment touched by so many other people?
"As long as you don't touch yourself or your face it is," he paused for a beat. "Moderately safe."
"I don't think it's as bad as Spring Break," said Jihad Brown, 27, referring to videos posted of people partying in defiance of public health warnings.
Brown works as a doorman, and said he was doing calisthenics in the park. He used the outdoor gym too, but said he wore gloves.
"The team sports I wouldn't really condone but if you're using gloves and you're a safe distance apart, that's precautionary enough to not limit you to being in a bubble, staying home. Because that can get to you. For mental health, it's good to get outside."
A tipster wrote Gothamist earlier this week, "At Astoria Park tonight there were 200+ people crammed onto the lit soccer field, playing soccer and generally keeping no distance between themselves. It’s one thing for parks to be crowded, but can’t the city enforce a no contact sports rule?"
On Friday, with the weather hitting over 70, it was like a summer weekend at Prospect Park:
It was like this in just about every park throughout the city:
Although the High Line closed this week, NYC parks are still open. And while officials have advised New Yorkers to occasionally venture outside for some fresh air as long as they maintain social distancing, there is still a question of how safe parks really are right now.
"Parks are open and great places to get fresh air and exercise, but we want people to use their common sense—we are urging all New Yorkers to practice social distancing precautions if they come out," said Parks Dept. spokesperson Crystal Howard. "Please do not overcrowd each other, there is plenty of space for everyone to enjoy city parks while maintaining plenty of distance between each other." She added that the Parks Department is working closely with the city's medical experts for guidance on how to handle things, and that "we are cleaning our facilities following the directions and recommendations from DOHMH, including cleaning with appropriate products to ensure that surfaces are being fully disinfected."
But while public comfort stations are being cleaned once a day, the Parks Dept. does not regularly clean outdoor furniture and play equipment, which should make anyone with small children pause before using a jungle gym or swing set (or outdoor gym).
Stephen Morse, infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University, told Gothamist that even when outdoors, there is still reason to be extra careful.
"We’re still learning as we go," he told us earlier this week. "I can readily understand the temptation to go out, especially when the weather is good. For now, I’d say same precautions apply as elsewhere: six foot distance from others not in your household, same 'respiratory etiquette' (cover coughs and sneezes) and 'hand hygiene' (after touching surfaces, clean hands before touching face)."
On Brian Lehrer this week, a caller asked Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, about this topic as well. "Living near a park, this has come up in my own family, there is a lot of anxiety" around this, he said, noting that his own family was reluctant to let their small children go on playground equipment with lots of other kids around. "This becomes a personal decision. There's no data."
What is clear is the importance of parks to New Yorkers' states of mind right now, considering the limited options for things to do outside of their apartments. “Please let them not close the park,” Anne Powers, who was strolling along the lakeside in Prospect Park with a friend, told the Times. “It sort of gives you hope.” For now, the city is taking that need for hope seriously—but we should all hope that everyone takes the guidelines about social distancing seriously as well, or else more drastic measures may be taken.
As City Council speaker Corey Johnson told Politico on Friday, “You don’t want people crowded into a park." Instead, he has urged the city to close certain streets to traffic to give more room to pedestrians.
With reporting from Christopher Robbins.