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It’s time to reopen the playgrounds | READER COMMENTARY

Jill Biden, wife of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, walks from a podium in front of a closed playground during a tour of the Evan G. Shortlidge Academy in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, to launch a multi-week swing through 10 battleground states. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Access to public playgrounds and green spaces is well known to support childhood mental and physical well-being. In many urban centers, these may be the only spaces where physical activity is possible for more economically-marginalized communities. However, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, playgrounds in many parts of the country were closed in mid-March with the implementation of stay-at-home orders. Now in September, unlike many restaurants, bars, casinos, museums and indoor play spaces for children, outdoor playgrounds remain closed in many areas of the country (“In memory of Mount Airy mother killed in April, town moving forward with all-inclusive playground plan,” July 30).

It is, however, now well known that COVID transmission is far more efficient indoors than it is outdoors. Moreover, surface transmission in outdoor settings has been rarely, if ever, documented. Finally, many European countries, which never closed playgrounds, have not established playgrounds as a significant source of transmission.

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Families with small children across the United States are struggling without access to this valuable community resource. Families in more economically marginalized communities, in particular, are struggling because they are less likely to have access to either private backyards or membership-based private green spaces. Thus, throughout the summer of 2020, families have been balancing the challenges of avoiding risky indoor spaces and not being allowed to take their children to public playgrounds.

Public health decision making is often based on the precautionary principle “it is better to be safe than sorry.” It was this decision-making process that led to the closure of playgrounds in March with vast amounts of yellow caution tape. However, public health officials need to balance the potential benefits of a decision with the harms. Here, we have a decision with unlikely benefits in disease prevention but with very real harm to communities.

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With this in mind, we call for the immediate opening of playgrounds. It is September. The summer is behind us. In many parts of the country, it will soon be too cold for children to use these spaces. The importance of access to playgrounds cannot be overstated as a community resource for families, particularly those who are struggling under the weight of this pandemic. It’s time to speak up for the parents and the kids. It’s time to open the playgrounds.

Becca Krukowski, Memphis, Tennessee, and Dr. Stefan Baral, Baltimore

The writers are, respectively, associate professors at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

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