Baxter City Council considers changes to parks access
After concerns were raised for groups playing basketball in city parks, the council considered removal of backboards as one way to discourage play that brings people together during the coronavirus pandemic.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Baxter City Council members considered whether more stringent changes should be made to discourage gatherings in public parks.
The city already decided not to put up tennis court nets as a way to discourage play, but wasn’t as sure if they should take out the backboards of basketball hoops — at least not yet. It’s a step other parks and recreation departments across the country have considered or done. In New York City, the rims were removed to prevent play.
Brad Chapulis, city administrator, said they closed the park facilities but not the parks themselves.
“We’ve been monitoring that. One of the things that we are running into is gatherings and people playing organized sports such as basketball for the most part.”
Chapulis said they have refrained from taking action but staff was looking for direction from the council when fielding questions, concerns or complaints. Earlier in the meeting, Mayor Darrel Olson mentioned hearing concerns about the gatherings.
“I think it would be really sad if we had to go to that extreme,” council member Mark Cross said. “It would take away from individuals going out there and doing something as far as practicing but, you know, people need to individually take the responsibility of social distancing.”
Cross said it’s something that is hard to legislate and harder to enforce.
“I hate to dismantle our parks to try to enforce it on our side,” Cross said.
Olson said he received phone calls and emails about it.
“People are pretty adamant on both sides of the issue,” Olson said, noting one call he had from a woman with an older parent who said she was scared that people at Berrywood Park were gathering in total disregard to concerns to keep a social distance to help slow the spread of the virus. So the concern was while some are risking their lives to save people, others are cavalier about the entire situation.
Olson, who belongs to a mayor’s association, has been monitoring discussions. He said the issue is a hot topic among the cities.
“It’s a mixed bag also,” Olson said. “I would say it’s tilted more to closing them down because of the fear.”
Olson said he’s wrestled with the issue and isn’t sure what the right answer is and there is uncertainty when this crisis will end.
“I look at us as a city and one of the comments made to me was, ‘You’re leaders. Act like leaders and do your job.’ I’m not sure what that always means, but in this particular case I guess I get the message. So what is the right thing to do?”
Olson noted for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department a main concern was the basketball and the many hands on the basketball. Some put up signs to warn parents. Olson noted the tennis court nets were taken down and they may be of less concern as far as distancing.
“It’s weighed heavily on my mind,” Olson said. “And I’m looking for guidance from the rest of you — and staff needs to know what is our policy, what’s going to happen. If they’re going to go out there and enforce it, they need to know that we are either behind them or we’re not.
“Part of me says, if we’re taking this thing serious, and we really think it is what it is, that we would take whatever measures we thought were necessary to help — not cure but to slow it down and whatever it would take to do that. So I’m hoping you will all have the answers for me tonight to make me feel better.”
Council member Zach Tabatt said one consideration was to lean on the police department and Chief Jim Exsted.
“I feel like we owe it to both our citizenry and the police department not to put police in the position of having to deal with that,” Tabatt said, adding if the city has a way to prevent confrontations in a public health context it might be the harder choice to make that the city remove the backboards rather than put officers in that position.
Exsted said he didn’t have the answer but also received the email the mayor did. Exsted said they traveled around the parks and are finding them empty during the day or with little activity. Kids are social by nature are going to join in groups, Exsted said, and to have them at a park, while not ideal right now, is a good, positive activity.
“I’d hate to see what happens if we start taking away some of the positive choices,” Exsted said. “Is it the right choice at this particular time? Probably not, but kids don’t always make the right choices all the time. So I struggle with that.”
For 25 years, Exsted said he hoped officers would stop and get out and go play in that basketball game but added they are prepared to do things differently right now. Exsted said in Southdale Park recently about a dozen cars were parked in the playground section about 6-8 feet apart with a kid or two at the back of each vehicle kicking a ball, social distancing and communicating.
“I want you to hear those stories,” Exsted said.
Council member Connie Lyscio said she’s seen plenty of activity with basketball hoops in the driveways in the community but not at the parks. Lyscio said she supported Tabatt’s comments to lean on the police department.
“I would really like to wait it out before we take the step of having to remove things,” Lyscio said.
Council member Todd Holman concurred.
By consensus the council agreed to monitor it and let it go for now and will meet again in a couple of weeks.
Renee Richardson, managing editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchBizBuzz.