It was heartbreaking to close Mercer Island playgrounds on March 21 at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Ryan Daly, the city’s emergency operations section chief.
“We want parents to have the ability to get their kids outside. So when we found an opportunity to open things back up, we wanted to do so and in a safe manner as well,” Daly said.
The city’s parks maintenance staff began reopening the playgrounds on Sept. 24, and all 13 playgrounds in the Island’s 11 parks are now back in action, along with those in some neighboring cities.
Daly, who was previously the interim director of Parks and Recreation, said he participated in weekly conversations about reopening playgrounds and their biggest concern was overcrowding, especially the regional draw to Luther Burbank Park.
Around the time school restarted on Sept. 2, they were witnessing a decline in park usage and the reopening discussions continued.
“So what that was leading us to understand was that there was an ability to open these facilities up and not have gathering be the issue we were concerned about previous in the summer,” said Daly, adding that city staff inspectors began working to ensure the playgrounds were safe to use.
Daly and his staff are asking visitors to follow Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines when utilizing the playground equipment. Parks feature signage regarding safety guidelines, and specifically refraining from gathering in groups of five or more.
The city offers the following safety tips for parents and children: everyone should wash their hands, or use hand sanitizer, before and after playing; practice physical distancing, staying 6 feet apart from others outside the household; wear a face covering; avoid crowded play areas; don’t visit a park or play area if they are feeling sick.
The community showed an overwhelming interest in playground usage again, said Alaine Sommargren, the city’s parks operations manager.
“My impression is that people have been pretty excited, especially the parents of young kiddos,” she said, adding that it was tough to see the playgrounds empty during the summer.
Sommargren feels they made the right decision to close the playgrounds, however, now that the spots are reopened, she’s still concerned about overcrowding and social distancing.
“We really are trying to encourage people, like, if you show up and there’s a bunch of kids at a playground, just go find another one,” she said. “There’s tons of them on the Island, and there’s some that just don’t get a lot of attention and it would be worth seeking out some of those where you can get a little more distance.”
Playground highlights are the Luther Burbank zipline and climbing features, the large slide at First Hill Park, the dragon at Deane’s Children Park and the nature-based equipment — which mimics rocks, logs and more — at South Mercer Playfields and Homestead Field.
Some people were overeager to resume their activities when the playgrounds were closed by ripping down caution tape every day and sawing through locks on swings.
When they received the go-ahead to reopen the playgrounds, Sommargren’s team put some swings and the zipline back into place and ensured their functionality, fully raked the fibar surfaces so they are safe and even, did some pruning and pulled some vegetation back from the play areas.
In addition to the playgrounds, Groveland Beach Park reopened on Aug. 21 after being closed since July 30 because of overcrowding.