Even in a global pandemic and national emergency, children want to play. So families kept coming recently to a playground in Howard County.
First, dozens of people showed up. Then more than 100, then more than 250 people, officials reported. Elsewhere, parks, playgrounds and basketball courts were overrun. They closed the gates.
Bigger crowds than usual have begun heading outside to jogging trails, ball courts and parks. It’s all the result of coincidence: Spring has arrived during a coronavirus outbreak that has freed up Marylanders from work and school.
While officials say it’s generally safe outdoors, they urge precautions. After all, this isn’t a holiday, Gov. Larry Hogan told families during a recent news conference.
The governor banned gatherings of more than 10 people.
“Some people are treating this like a vacation or spring break with parties and cookouts and large gatherings at some of our parks,” Hogan said. “Let me be very clear: If you are engaged in this type of activity, you are in violation of state law and you are endangering the lives of your fellow Marylanders.”
The number of coronavirus cases continues to rise in Maryland, with at least 349 cases confirmed by state health officials. The virus has infected children, from an infant to a teenager. A 5-year-old girl in Howard County has the virus, and a Prince George’s County man in his 60s became the first in Maryland to die of it.
Doctors believe the virus spreads mostly from people in close contact, within about six feet. So they are urging everyone to keep their distance; they call this “social distancing.”
Respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes can be inhaled or land on others, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Touching contaminated surfaces can spread the virus. That’s why doctors are encouraging everyone to wash their hands frequently. Handshakes are a bad idea, and try to avoid touching your face.
In Baltimore, health officials found the virus has already spread through the community, meaning people have become infected without knowing where they picked up the virus. Health officials have confirmed at least 41 cases in the city.
While city parks remain open, officials suspended all recreation programs, rentals and permitted events. Recreational activities — including hiking, biking and horseback riding — at the Liberty, Loch Raven, and Prettyboy reservoirs will also be suspended starting March 23.
Still, fresh air and exercise is important for mental and physical health, said Dr. Letitia Dzirasa, Baltimore’s health commissioner. She and other public health experts say parks and trails can be enjoyed safely, so long as everyone keeps six feet apart.
This means riding bikes, walking or running, or playing only with the family you live with. Steer clear of others. No contact sports. And the playground equipment isn’t a good idea. The coronavirus can live on surfaces for up to 24 hours, according to experts.
“If you are going to do outdoor activities, make use of personal equipment rather than park equipment,” Dzirasa said. “But definitely go enjoy the weather.”
She adds that if the allure of the playground equipment is too strong and the kids end up on the monkey bars or swings, do a thorough hand washing.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service has reported an onrush of visitors. A busy weekend caused officials to scale back hours and access to parks around the country.
Across Maryland, parks and trails remain generally open, but officials have closed public restrooms and nature centers and canceled youth sports leagues. They are also taking measures to reduce big crowds outdoors.
Baltimore officials routinely close the road over Loch Raven Reservoir to cars on weekends to allow for walkers, joggers and bicyclists. Loch Raven Drive draws an average of 1,500 people on Saturdays and Sundays, officials say. At first, they announced plans to keep the road open to traffic to reduce crowds and prevent chance of the virus spreading. Days later, however, they closed the reservoirs to all recreation.
The crowds caused concern for officials in Howard County, who decided to leave the parks open to the public but close off access to the various playground equipment. Crews will be sent out to post warning of “keep off” on the slides, monkey bars and other equipment.
“Those germs can stay on the equipment much longer, and we’re not able to sanitize them after each use,” Howard County Executive Calvin Ball told families at a news conference Thursday.
Last week, county officials counted 250 people around the playground at Meadowbrook Park in Ellicott City. More than 50 were on the basketball courts.
The southern parking lot at Centennial Park was nearly filled to capacity. And there were so many people walking the Savage Mill Trail that officials counted 30 cars parked illegally along the road.
These parks remain open, but officials closed the gates to slow the onrush. Families must walk on now.
“Having our gates open was actually encouraging a lot of people to bring carloads in,” Ball said.
He echoed the governor’s words.
“This is not spring break. We need to take this seriously.”
Going outdoors safely
Practice social distancing, even when outdoors, by keeping 6 feet apart. Don’t allow children to play together in close contact.
Avoid touching playground equipment, handrails or other fixtures that could contain the virus. The virus can live on these surfaces.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
Use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol If you touch a public surface. Cover your entire hands and rub until dry.
Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds once you get home.
Most importantly, if you feel sick stay home.