If we can safely distance at the grocery store, surely we can do the same at parks

By Manal J. Aboelata, Special to CalMatters

Across California, local leaders are making decisions about how to manage the parks, beaches and trails that many of us flocked to at the beginning of the state’s sweeping stay-at-home order to contain the coronavirus.

Where I live, in Los Angeles, the Department of Parks and Recreation responded by closing many outdoor facilities.

For physicians and lawmakers working to halt transmission of the coronavirus, the crowds that had gathered understandably raised alarms. But rather than shut down our parks and trails, we need to deploy resources to safely manage these public resources: we need them now more than ever.

We’re all adjusting to the demands the coronavirus pandemic is putting on us. 

My teenage sons, like many other students, have been stuck at home for two weeks — and no one knows how long such measures will be needed going forward. I’m content to go for a walk in my neighborhood, but my boys need more. They need open space for vigorous exercise and play. 

Spending time outside being physically active confers lifesaving health benefits,  helping to maintain health and prevent chronic conditions like type-II diabetes, heart disease and high-blood pressure. 

The benefits to keeping our parks open aren’t just physical. As my sons shift to online learning, they mourn the loss of their 8th– and 10th-grade experiences. My younger son probably won’t graduate with his classmates and my older boy wonders about his college plans.

 All this uncertainty raises anxiety. Physical activity and contact with nature help increase concentration, reduce stress and fend off depression.  

Efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus need to emphasize physical distancing as our best available strategy right now. All of us — including our children — have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable and “flatten the curve” so our already-stretched health care system can cope. 

We owe it to our health care workers to exercise great care as we figure out how to live with COVID-19 over the coming months. But with proper precautions, my sons should still be able to play one-on-one basketball with each other. 

Parks and recreation staff are trained to deal with park users and could monitor crowds, take reservations, remind patrons to keep safe distances and make hand-washing stations available to all park users.

 Instead, with many outdoor recreation facilities now off-limits, I fear that the health protection and police powers of the state are set to converge in ways that could be especially dangerous for boys and men of color — the people most likely to be over-policed in public spaces.

In L.A., failure to comply with stay-at-home orders could mean a misdemeanor violation subject to fines and imprisonment. My boys live and learn in neighborhoods where police violence and misconduct are cruelly and disproportionately meted out to African-American males. Making use of our public facilities grounds for misdemeanors invites unnecessary police contact. We need better options.

The last few weeks have revealed deep inequalities in our society and the effects of 40-plus years of political assault and underfunding on weakening our social safety net. As a mom and a public health professional, I fight every day to improve neighborhood conditions and save lives.

 Decades of public health research shows us that creating healthy environments enables healthy decision-making. Prohibition and suppression push problems underground and fuel inequality.  

Addressing COVID-19 requires an approach that’s flexible, responsive to changing conditions, attentive to unintended consequences, and sustainable. We need to find responsible solutions that prevent the spread of disease while recognizing that parks provide essential services and help meet the general public’s need to maintain health, safety and wellbeing. 

Parks, schools and libraries provide social connection, shelter, information, food and safe places to play. Instead of shutting them down, our goal should be to manage risks so we can safely comply with emergency orders while getting the lifesaving health benefits these public services bestow. After all, health is much more than merely the absence of disease.

_____

Manal J. Aboelata is the deputy executive director of the national nonprofit Prevention Institute, [email protected]. She lives in the Crenshaw community of Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.

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