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Tampa Bay residents enjoy outdoors as parks begin to reopen

Across the region, residents find mental health, physical benefits of being outdoors.

TAMPA — A masked park ranger stood at the entrance of Flatwoods Conservation Park an hour after it reopened as the parking lot filled with more cars than it had seen in weeks.

Still, it was not as crowded as some expected.

“I thought it would be a lot more crowded,” said Tampa resident Janell Meager. “People were very nice and mindful.”

Certain parks, pools, preserves and trails across the Tampa Bay area reopened Monday as part of the governor’s first phase of reopening the state.

Related: RELATED: Tampa begins to open its parks, beaches
Related: RELATED: Hillsborough to reopen some parks Saturday

Niki Fortes, 25, arrived as soon as Flatwoods park opened at 8 a.m. to ride her bike.

“It’s a good change of scene and fresh air,” said Fortes, who has been working from home. “It gives us a great opportunity to get out of the house.”

Rachael Chaska, 34, said she was excited to go roller-blading. As a regular runner and walker, she is happy to see the parks open again, and said most pedestrians and bicyclists typically know how to give each other space anyway.

“It’s nice to be able to get out,” Chaska said. “I think it’s really good for mental health. I can only walk around my block so many times.”

At the Upper Tampa Bay Trail, a pair of cousins played a board game. They said they didn’t think the world would ever be the same again.

Related: RELATED: Florida is reopening tomorrow. Is the plan safe?

Juan and Melissa Gomez, who were out with 5-year-old Luciana, said they felt safe about parks being open.

Juan and Melissa Gomez enjoy the outdoors with 5-year-old Luciana on a Monday morning at the Upper Tampa Bay Trail. [DIVYA KUMAR | Times]

“Parks are fine because people anyway are spread out,” Melissa Gomez said. “Maybe beaches are something different though.”

She said she hopes the state is slow in re-opening indoor spaces.

While all pools remain closed in Tampa, the city of St. Petersburg opened two public pools Monday — North Shore Aquatic Complex and Walter Fuller Pool.

But only members of established swim teams and programs can use them. The general public and recreational swimming is not permitted.

Members of Swim to Stay Fit, Masters Lap Swimming and St. Petersburg Aquatics can sign up for 45-minute slots at both locations in advance, and each lane is limited to one person unless those sharing the lane are immediate family members.

Sharon Steinmann, 61, called the pool’s opening a “psychological boost," after leaving a workout at North Shore around 1 p.m. Monday. She swims with Masters Lap Swimming, a competitive team with hundreds of members.

“It’s a huge part of my life, so it’s been really hard because beaches were closed, all the pools were closed,” she said. “This is just a godsend because we’re addicted to swimming.”

Clearwater’s five public pools will reopen May 11 with limited hours and restrictions. Kiddie pools will remain closed and swim lessons will be discontinued, but lap swimming in main pools will be allowed by reservation for one-hour slots by calling the recreation centers, said city spokeswoman Krystie Epperson.

Picnic tables at Fort Desoto Park began to fill near lunchtime with signs warning guests to stay 6 feet apart.

Signs spread throughout Fort Desoto Park and its trails reminded guests to keep their distance from each other. [DIVYA KUMAR | Times]

Makenzie Hirsch, 19, came with her family but wasn’t sure the signs would be enough.

“I know I’m here, but personally I don’t think (parks) should be open yet,” she said. “Health should come first. Florida hasn’t hit the peak yet, so we should probably wait until after.”

Adam Baker, 58, said he’s glad things are starting to reopen.

“The last few weeks have been strange for living in America,” he said. “It’s weird seeing us under almost house arrest.”

Baker said he worries about the mental health consequences of extended isolation.

“As Americans, we’re resilient people and we’ll rebound,” he said. “As human beings, we’re meant to be in a social setting. It’s good to have a start to return to normalcy.”

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