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Keep Tampa Bay parks open so people have room to roam | Column
It’s important that Tampa Bay residents have access to open space during the pandemic, writes a USF professor.
The sun rises as Rich Dalessio, 53, from St. Petersburg, prepares to cast his line while fishing off of the sea wall at North Shore Park on April 23, 2020 in St. Petersburg.
The sun rises as Rich Dalessio, 53, from St. Petersburg, prepares to cast his line while fishing off of the sea wall at North Shore Park on April 23, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Apr. 27, 2020

Local leaders in the Tampa Bay area have taken seriously the need to maintain social distancing, and their actions have helped limit COVID-19 infections in our region. But even those sheltering in place need fresh air and exercise. Access to open space is a critical resource at this moment, especially for urban residents, who must be able to get outside while maintaining social distance. Keeping parks open, even in a limited fashion, and converting underused roadways to bike/pedestrian trails is a fast and easy solution to ensure that open space is available to everyone.

Access to open space is not the same for everyone. If you have a back yard or live on a quiet cul-de-sac you have many opportunities to be outdoors. Private club members are still able to play a round of golf. But if you live in an apartment, or on a busy road, you depend on public space for fresh air and exercise. Research has long documented racial disparities in access to open space that have become more critical now. And a recent UCLA study showed that shelter-in-place policies put a far higher burden on lower income households, in part because their access to open space is limited.

Elizabeth Strom
Elizabeth Strom [ Courtesy of Elizabeth Strom ]

Access to open space is also a health issue, according to the Trust for Public Land. Outdoor exercise like walking has been found to help with depression and ADHD, and even boost immunity. Indeed, exercise is an important preventative for some of the conditions associated with poor COVID-19 outcomes, like obesity or hypertension, making it all the more critical at this time.

There are understandable concerns that encouraging the use of public space contradicts the message that people need to stay home. Experts interviewed by the Washington Post and Slate, however, see the odds of outdoor virus transmittal (with proper distancing) as slim. This is especially true if people are using parks for walking and biking, where they pass each other quickly and limit their exposure.

So what can our local communities do to ensure that Tampa Bay residents can venture outdoors?

First, our local governments can keep public parks open, with appropriate restrictions. Pinellas County and St. Petersburg have done so, and in a recent Tampa Bay Times article Sheriff Bob Gualtieri indicated that compliance with distancing guidelines was increasing as people adapted to the rules. Pasco County recently reopened many of its parks and recreation areas, with restrictions. Only Hillsborough County and Tampa continue to keep parks closed, after seeing crowds gathering immediately after “safer at home” orders were announced.

Hillsborough County and Tampa should reconsider this policy. Local leaders can look to the largely positive experiences of neighboring communities. They might also study Tampa’s Riverwalk (which is open) and Hillsborough County’s Upper Tampa Bay trail (where parking lots are closed but the trail remains accessible), where users appear to be adhering to distancing guidelines.

Parks are, however, just the beginning of a shelter-in-place open space strategy. Our communities have thousands of miles of roadway, much of which is well under capacity during the current shutdown. Tampa Bay area counties have seen a 75% decrease in vehicle miles travelled since the start of the year, which means at least at the moment we have many roads seeing little use at all.

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Think of all the closed schools, stadiums and malls currently sitting on roads with little or no traffic. Tampa residents are already pressing city leaders to close the northbound car lanes on Bayshore Boulevard for pedestrian and bicycle use. There are likely to be many more roadways across the Tampa Bay area that could be vehicle free, at least while stay-at-home orders are in place.

Road closures may sound radical, but many cities with higher traffic volumes than ours are doing just that. New York, Portland, and Toronto are experimenting with street closures to provide residents with outdoor space. Oakland is phasing in 74 miles of “slow streets” with restricted vehicle access.

Distancing has been shown to be the best way to reduce the spread of the Coronavirus, but we can’t be “safer-at-home” if many of our neighbors are cut off from fresh air and exercise. By creatively managing public roadways and parks, our communities can provide room to roam – at a distance – to all our residents.

Elizabeth Strom is an associate professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida and a co-leader of the Scholars Strategy Network’s Central Florida chapter.

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