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Residents Get Back to Nature as Polk County Green Spaces Reopen

Reopening parks and recreational facilities that were closed as the coronavirus crept into Polk County is helping people cope during the crisis.

“Keep in mind that the whole concept of public recreation in America started from an understanding that being outdoors and engaging in recreation and leisure has tremendous benefits for health (physical and mental) and for combatting social issues,” said T. Michael Stavres, assistant city manager in Winter Haven.

Research shows that exercise, the natural environment and fresh air can positively affect our mental and physical state, which is why reopening parks and green space is critical, Stavres said. “And for those who reside in multi-family developments or in areas where they don’t have access to their own property for play, the dependence on the public realm is even greater for this outlet.”

A TEDx talk called “The Power of Play” talks about the role of playing in helping children deal with crises and tragedies. “Bodies and minds that feel good, heal good,” said speaker Ash Perrin, the founder of a nonprofit that brings play and laughter to marginalized children.

Stavres said those in the parks and recreation profession will need to be mindful of this as we deal with this and other tragedies impacting our communities.

“Coping with crises and dealing with the impacts stemming from not being able to go about your daily routine is much easier when you have a clear mind and are of good health,” he said.

Winter Haven is reopening its parks in a five-phase approach:

  • Phase 1 opens passive park sites and boat ramps that don’t have high touch/contact areas (opens trails, green space, etc.).
  • Phase 2 opens parks with playgrounds, which are cleaned daily.
  • Phase 3 opens outdoor athletic fields for non-structured play (no leagues).
  • Phase 4 opens recreation centers.
  • Phase 5 restores opportunities to rent space.

“Transitioning from one phase to the next will be based on COVID-19 data,” said Stavres, adding that the city has placed signs reminding people about social distancing and how to stay safe.

Polk County and most cities also opened some of their facilities on May 1 and have a similar approach to reopening all. Lakeland, for instance, opened pathways and trails, dog parks, boat ramps, tennis courts and the Cleveland Heights Golf Course — places where social distancing is manageable, said City Manager Tony Delgado. But restroom facilities, picnic areas, playgrounds, athletic fields, recreation centers and the like remain closed for now.

“As long as a well-planned reopening is initiated, understanding the need for social distancing and other key protocols, parks facilities and passive recreational areas will allow our community to hopefully enjoy a respite from the never-ending barrage of pandemic challenges,” he said. “Interacting again with the community on some level is good for both our mental and physical health.”

“Right now, parks are being used just for the purpose of getting outdoors; I see a lot of biking and walking,” he said. “Our highest use areas are our boat ramps. The weather has been outstanding and people are spending a lot of time on the Chain of Lakes.  Our ramps have never been this crowded before.”

Jon Mott, a Lakeland runner who ran in the Olympic qualifying marathon in February, said he understands why the path around Lake Hollingsworth was closed, especially because people were not practicing the six-foot social distancing rule and were congregating there. He avoided it before it was closed because the trail is too narrow to keep a safe distance from others.

“But I think it’s important for people to exercise so they can strengthen their immune system to help prevent the chance of infection,” he said. He’s happy the trail has reopened and hopes people will adhere to the rules in place. “I think opening the trail gets people outdoors and helps relieve some of the stress caused by this crazy situation.”

Since it reopened, he said, the number of runners and walkers is much less than the 300 he counted on a weekday before the trail was closed. “I’ve been noticing more people respecting the social distancing rule,” Mott said. “I don’t feel as nervous anymore, so I’ve been running there a few times per week. Overall, I’m feeling a sense of relief, like people are finally doing their part.”

Delgado agreed, saying from what he’s seen, a reasonable number of people are using the trails and facilities. “My assumption is that people are taking it to heart that social distancing has improved our opportunity to lower the curve, and by not over-tasking the recreational amenities we will be able to keep these areas open for more to enjoy.”

Photo provided by Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce