Early last month, Princeton’s Emergency Management Team alerted the public that the play structures located in all city of Princeton parks would be closed.
Local parks remain open for walking and other use. The city continues to follow Minnesota Department of Health COVID-19 prevention recommendations and social distancing guidelines, but the play structures remain cordoned off.
Citizen Deborah Bittner, speaking via Zoom during a May 7 council study session, asked how the city came to the decision of closing off the playgrounds.
“I’m looking for clarification,” Bittner said, adding she researched information from surrounding communities. “I’m slightly confused as to why the playgrounds remain fenced off at this point. I’m just looking for clarification from what I’ve found on government websites and the communities around us.”
Mayor Brad Schumacher deferred to Princeton’s Emergency Management Team, asking Fire Chief Ron Lawrence to explain the situation.
Lawrence serves as emergency management team director and is chief with the Princeton Fire & Rescue Department, Deputy Director Bob Gerold is Princeton’s Public Works director, and Deputy Director Todd Frederick is police chief.
Lawrence said the city followed guidelines found on the Centers for Disease Control’s website regarding playground equipment use during a pandemic.
“We’ve done a great job in trying to keep our community safe, and there is no way that we could sanitize that equipment or use it safely,” Lawrence said. “We have to prevent the possibility of kids or adults possibly contracting COVID-19.”
Lawrence explained that following the CDC’s recommendation, the playground structures will remain closed until next Monday (May 18), a key decision date for Gov. Tim Walz to make a possible change on extending a stay-at-home order.
Bittner said that when she had called for more information earlier in the week, she was told the city was following the governor’s mandate to keep things closed locally. She asked Lawrence to provide additional clarification on that point.
“I haven’t seen anything from the governor’s emergency management team that would state that playgrounds are open,” Lawrence said. Bittner said she visited a state COVID-19 website and under a frequently asked question section of that online resource, she found information that specifically addressed playgrounds.
“There’s a clear emphasis stating playgrounds are not closed and that families are responsible for ensuring children wash their hands and exercise due diligence,” Bittner said. “Whenever you use public property, there’s assumed risk.”
Lawrence agreed with Bittner’s statement about assumed risk, but said it wasn’t practical for city workers to continuously sanitize park playground equipment.
“We don’t have those kinds of resources,” Lawrence said. “We are following the CDC guidance and keeping the play structures shut down for now,” he added.
Bittner asked the council to reconsider its decision to keep the play structures closed.
“I think it was very prudent of you to shut them down when all of this started, and there was lack of data [about COVID-19], but there’s been research released that says COVID-19’s half-life is 90 seconds [on contact],” Bittner said. “Compare that with standard influenza and its half-life on playground equipment and ultraviolet light exposed areas, which is 2.4 minutes. Please carefully consider the decisions that you are making for our community and how they affect us overall.”
Bittner said she reached out the mayor of Cambridge for additional information.
She said the city did post signs reminding citizens that the playground equipment wasn’t disinfected and it would be up to park users and parents to complete the task of self-governing when taking responsibility for their own families.
Lawrence said Bittner had made several good points, but in Princeton, the city’s action was taken to help the community stay safe by slowing COVID-19.
“We haven’t hit our peak number of cases yet,” Lawrence said. “I don’t want to be part of having an outbreak in the city because of a playground. Testing is just starting to ramp up. You can’t guarantee people are going to wash their hands.”
Bittner said she understood Lawrence’s point, but added Princeton was setting a bad precedent.
“Looking at surrounding communities that are much more densely populated, the numbers are similar to ours. Frankly, the [case] numbers that were projected haven’t come to pass, and we just need to look at data we have now.”
Lawrence said that Princeton’s Emergency Management Team meets on a weekly basis when possible, and does review COVID-19 cases and related data.
“We are not just looking at communities that are similar in size to Princeton, but communities around us that are bigger where COVID-19 can be spread more easily,” Lawrence said, also mentioning St. Cloud as a potential virus outbreak hotspot. “We are watching that community because they are close to us. That could easily spread to Princeton because St. Cloud is only 35 minutes away.”
Schumacher suggested that Bittner participate in this week’s Princeton City Council meeting via Zoom and express her concerns during open forum at that meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.
“Things are happening, and this situation is fluid,” Schumacher said. “The process to reopen is going to be slow.”