'Be a good citizen': Park districts, forest preserves say keep spaced apart or they'll shut down

It was that warm, sunny day earlier this week when a Palatine Park District employee came across an unsettling sight: a game of pickleball.

The assistant superintendent of parks was making the rounds to see if caution tape was still wrapped around playgrounds closed by the statewide stay-at-home order.

"He found over 35 senior citizens inside a fenced tennis court playing pickleball," Executive Director Mike Clark said. "I personally don't understand how people think that's appropriate, so unfortunately, I had to take a hard stance."

Park districts and forest preserves are facing a coronavirus quandary: They've touted the outdoors as a mental boost and antidote to cabin fever, but crowds are still failing to heed public health warnings to practice social distancing.

Those failures have brought more restrictions to outdoor gathering spaces, a crackdown gaining traction after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot closed the city's lakefront, 606 trail and Riverwalk.

  The basketball hoops at Community Park in Palatine have been covered with 2x4s. People were still playing basketball and other contact sports despite social distancing guidelines. Rick West/

The Palatine and Elmhurst park districts have locked tennis and pickleball courts. Two-by-fours have been bolted to basketball rims. Soccer and lacrosse goals have been disassembled. All in an endeavor to get people to stop congregating and comply with efforts to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.

"They kind of gave everyone a chance, but people seem to keep wanting to get into small groups, and that's making it difficult for us to flatten the curve," said Dr. Sunny Sharma, an internist for Amita Health.

Outdoor risks

Recent studies on how long the virus can persist in droplets in the air have raised questions about what outdoor activities are still safe.

"When you start exercising, if you get going, you may start coughing and you might not know. You might be an asymptomatic carrier at that time where the symptoms haven't kicked in yet," Sharma said. "So that's why its important for us to distance ourselves a bit more."

He's primarily worried about the risk from extended exposure to an infected person. The virus also can spread by touching contaminated surfaces.

  A sign is posted at Kehoe Park in St. Charles Friday that the park is closed due to the coronavirus. Rick West/

"If someone coughed and sneezed in an area, and they say it could potentially be in there for half an hour, if someone runs through it, I'm not as worried," Sharma said. "But if there's multiple people in close distances, within 6 feet, talking for extended periods of time, and one person may have it, that's a little bit more of an issue."

Instead of group runs, people can lace up their shoes with their headsets on a phone call to a workout buddy on a different running path. Another consideration for runners: Avoid pressing the walk signal buttons at intersections, Sharma advises. The virus can last on surfaces for hours to even days.

So if you live in an apartment building, and you need the elevator to venture outside, try not to lean against its walls. Push buttons with the back of your hand or wrist.

"What's very important, anyone anytime goes outside, not just because of the coronavirus but in general, whenever you get back home, the first thing you should do is always wash your hands," Sharma said.

He tries to spend time outdoors for a mental release, but he's now going out when there's less foot traffic. He's seen nearly 10 patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

"For the elderly, I do worry about them just staying indoors, not even going outside to see the sunlight," he said. "If someone has the luxury of having a front lawn or a patio and are able to just sit outside for a little bit, soak in the sun, just a little bit of that can help some of the mental health issues that you potentially have."

  The path along the Fox River in the Fabyan Forest Preserve starts to get crowded Wednesday even with the stay-at-home order. Rick West/

Forced to close?

In Lisle, the Morton Arboretum has scaled back its hours, closely moderated the number of visitors and reminded them to disperse on walking, running and biking trails.

"If it becomes evident that visitors do not maintain 6 feet of distance, the Arboretum will have no choice but to close," President and CEO Gerard Donnelly cautioned this week.

Elmhurst Park District Executive Director Jim Rogers issued the same warning Friday after reporting a volume of people in the parks playing on playgrounds and gathering on athletic fields.

"Please do not make us take the next step of closing down the community parks entirely," Rogers said in a written notice. "We want people to be able to get outside to get fresh air and go for a walk, but if this type of blatant disregard for the safety of others continues, we will be forced to do so."

  Caution tape surrounds the closed playground at Converse Park in Lake in the Hills. Rick West/

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has encouraged people to visit only with members of their household and to avoid touching signs, benches or shelters.

The Lake County Forest Preserve District is installing more signs with a plea to adhere to social distancing so its properties can stay open.

"Right now, it seems to be OK, but we're watching it very closely," Executive Director Ty Kovach said.

Palatine parks will put a grid on its website showing what's still open and what's closed.

"The trails are open. Again, we just urge and mandate that even if you're going to use those, be a good citizen," Clark said. "Be a fellow, decent human and don't be close to people. Just don't get close to people."

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