Little Rock reopens parks and playgrounds, helps community heal from pandemic
August 10-16, 2020
By Krishnan Collins
After a brief pause in some activities during the spring, Little Rock Parks and Recreation (LRPR) is now taking steps to open more of its parks and programs open amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the pandemic first hit in early March, the Little Rock city officials closed some of its amenities along with playgrounds, basketball courts, golf courses and fitness centers. Park spaces, hiking and biking trails stayed open. “At that point we took time to gather information to try to assess what the pandemic was, what COVID really was and the precautions we needed to take to ensure safety,” Little Rock Parks and Recreation Director John Eckart said. “From there we started making decisions to reopen things.”
Eckart said Parks and Rec opened golf courses and tennis courts early on as those were places where activities could easily be socially distant. Playgrounds were reopened next. “The transmission via surfaces came out that it was not as high of a probability, combined with our playgrounds being outdoor and under the UV (ultraviolet), we decided to go ahead and open those back up,” Eckart said.
Currently, LRPR’s community centers are closed along with pools and splash pads, but the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History is open. Both adult and youth athletic programs have not yet been resumed. Eckart said the LRPR has a large volunteer pool to help with various programs including youth athletics. With certain programs like youth athletics not active, volunteers have been used in a different way to give back to the community.
“There is always a need for volunteers, absolutely,” Eckart said. “It is a big part of us being able to provide the services we provide. What came out of it was a large need for feeding kids and families during this time. We were able to route volunteers to help with feeding of lunches, dinners and breakfasts throughout the City of Little Rock. I think we are right around over 500,000 meals distributed and it is growing.”
Parks and Rec already did such work in the past, but COVID-19 allowed the organization to do it on a larger scale. Monetary issues tend to come along when dealing with COVID-19, but Parks and Rec does not have many concrete numbers on that yet. “We do not know the full effect of it budgetarily yet,” Eckart said. “We get our sales tax numbers two months in arrears. But, from what we are seeing it is not a big of hit as we thought it was going to be. In March, the city proactively took a $5 million budget adjustment for the entire city budget so that included some park budget. I do think there will be additional adjustments in the future. We are not exactly sure what the extent of that is.”
With many gyms, fitness centers and many of the normal businesses people were used to visiting closed or reduced in operation due to COVID-19, the outdoors have been and will most likely continue to be an escape for many. “One thing you saw was the importance of parks. During this time when people did not have other outlets they came to outdoor spaces, our parks and our trails,” Eckart said. “The attendance at all our parks was quite a bit larger than it is at a usual time. It exemplified the importance of outdoor space and outdoor recreation during this pandemic.”
Meanwhile, the Little Rock Zoo reopened on July 11 after it was temporarily closed when an employee tested positive for COVID-19 in late June. City zoo officials had begun a phased reopening in mid-summer after its mid-March closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zoo Director Susan Altrui said last month that all exposed employees have tested negative and that the city-owned zoo has conducted deep cleaning of facilities to ensure added safety of employee and guest areas. Zoo policies, including requirements of employees to wear masks while working on the 33-acre urban facility were critical in preventing the spread of the virus. Other protocols such as limiting exposure between team members and enhanced sanitizing also likely helped prevent the spread.
“Wearing masks works to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we will continue this practice to keep our guests, staff, volunteers and animals safe,” said Altrui, adding that Zoo guests age 10 and older are also required to wear masks.
Also, as the entire state adjusts to the recent spikes in COVID-19 cases and deaths, Little Rock city officials have made a tool kit aimed at illustrating the importance of social distancing and wearing face coverings available to residents, businesses, churches and other organizations.
It includes signage with the City’s Keep Covered and Keep Your Distance messaging; Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott, Jr.’s executive order requiring face coverings in public; and graphics that may be used for social media or displayed on monitors. Each piece is available in English and Spanish.
The city also has large signs (22” x 28”) in English and Spanish available for contactless pick up at City Hall. “We want people to remember as they are out enjoying public spaces, that the coronavirus is still a very real threat,” said Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr. “We want to remind them that masks and face coverings make a difference and social distancing saves lives.”
City officials are also citing U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data that social distancing leads to 33% fewer contacts and that masks protect those around the wearer from contracting coronavirus, which is easily spread through droplets expelled during sneezing, coughing, singing or even talking.
When visiting public spaces, residents are required both by city and state executive orders to wear a face covering when not able to stay six feet away from others outside their own households. When using a face covering, residents are reminded:
• Make sure you can breathe through it
• Wear it whenever out in public
• Make sure it covers your nose and mouth
• Wash it after using
• Don’t use a face covering on children under age 2
• Don’t use surgical masks or personal protective equipment intended for healthcare workers
The kit can be downloaded at LittleRock.gov/covid19
(Photos courtesy of Arkansas Dept. of Parks & Tourism)