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The option of taking a socially-distant walk at the park
Shifting to an at-home office has proven to be more challenging than expected.
As the number of people infected rises, stay-at-home orders become more strict and districts extend school closures, the majority of residents in the RGV have become homebound. Working from home offices, kitchens and bedrooms, conferencing with others through webcams has become a norm that many did not anticipate.
Despite the closure of playground equipment, local parks are staying open. Hidalgo County has allowed people to use them for outdoor activity per the stay-at-home order, provided they keep to the recommended 6 ft. of separation between others.
Mission Parks and Recreation Director Brad Bentsen spoke on the measures their department has had to take to help curb the spread of COVID-19 while keeping the parks open. Parks are staying open so safe walking and jogging spaces can still be made available to the public.
“People need to be healthy, but they do need to be cautious and be respectful of other people’s distance,” Bentsen said. “Try to avoid gathering in groups, try to avoid intersections where people might stop to gather.”
Several signs have been displayed at Mission parks that highlight the best ways to practice safe social distancing in the park, including avoiding high-touch points like gates and fountains, trying not to touch your face, carrying water and hand sanitizer around and washing hands for a minimum of 20 seconds.
“If you feel like you’re sick, don’t go out,” Bentsen stressed. “Don’t subject yourselves to others.”
The National Recreation and Park Association has been encouraging citizens to use the open spaces to their advantage in the midst of COVID-19 isolation orders. As of March 27, 2020, more than 1,000 organizations (including the Mission Parks and Recreation and the city of McAllen Parks and Recreation) have signed on to their guidelines and support the safe use of parks during the pandemic.
According to an NRPA statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has “flagged mental health as a top concern associated with the COVID-19 outbreak.” They noted that physical distancing may take a toll on mental health, especially during high-stress and anxiety-producing global public health emergencies. “Parks provide a connection to the outdoors and green space as well as opportunities for physical activity which studies demonstrate reduces stress and improves mental health,” the statement read. “Many parks, trails and open spaces can continue to be used in a safe manner that allows people to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits these spaces provide.”
They recommended that people follow their local and state guidelines when it comes to outdoor activity, and asked those exhibiting symptoms to stay home.
“Our nation’s park and recreation professionals are working hard to maintain these spaces and keep them safe, accessible and benefiting our communities during these challenging times,” the statement said. “Let us all do our part to use them in a way that respects each other and public health guidance.”
In Mission, park bathrooms and water fountains have been closed for a week. The city encourages visitors to plan ahead for personal needs because of the closures, and Bensten said that Mission also asks that visitors take their trash with them and throw it at home, to decrease exposure to city staff.
The International Journal of Environmental Health Research conducted a study last year that found even short-term visits to public parks have psychologically restorative benefits for a person, and it can contribute to the health of a person not just physically, but mentally.
“If you are so apt to use the Park Trails, be sure to follow social-distancing recommendations and be sure to just stay home if you’re feeling sick,” Bensten said, noting the distance recommended is six feet apart. “We have closed all access to baseball fields and basketball courts along with the closing of all playground structures at our city parks. Our parks will remain open for walking, jogging and biking to benefit “the physical and mental health of our community.”
An article published by the Journal of Environmental Psychology in the 1990’s also found a similar effect of being outside, citing the Stress Recovery Theory, which suggests that natural settings can bring forth stress recovery through nervous system changes.
“The restorative influences of nature involve a shift towards a more positively-toned emotional state, positive changes in physiological activity levels, and that these changes are accompanied by sustained attention/intake,” the study reads. “Directional differences in cardiac responses to the natural vs. urban settings suggested that attention/intake was higher during the natural exposures.”
Taping off the playground equipment and blocking basketball hoops have been a couple of other measures taken to lessen the chances of gatherings. Bentsen has noticed that it hasn’t stopped everyone, but they hope it slows people down.
“I saw different homes over the weekend that looked like they were having barbecues and stuff,” Bentsen said. “At the parks, I started noticing last week that people are coming out, but they’re probably about 25 percent or less of what I would normally see out there.”
The Mission Parks and Recreation Department is closed unless appointments are made over the phone in advance. Because they are considered an essential function, they have had to adjust their schedule so staff have staggered working hours in order to help avoid group gatherings, and the department has been respectful of those who request time off.
“We hate closing our playgrounds, but are meeting the county’s and city of Mission’s Health Orders by doing so,” Bensten said. “Our thoughts are with you and our entire Texas family during this uncertain time.”