San Diego Beaches, Parks And Restaurants Are Open, But Playgrounds Remain Closed
We all have that thing we miss most from our pre-pandemic life. For four-year-old James McCann, it’s the playground near the small condo he shares with his parents in University Heights.
Ask him why he can’t play there anymore and he answers with the euphemism he’s heard his parents using.
"Because of the thing going around," he said.
And his answer for when playgrounds might open?
"When the thing stops," he said.
He might be right.
While much else in San Diego has been allowed to gradually reopen —bars, restaurants, gyms, the zoo, even museums — playgrounds appear to be closed indefinitely.
They are not part of any phased reopening plans at the local or state level. This, despite doctors and infectious disease experts telling KPBS that playgrounds are far safer than indoor activities, citing a growing body of evidence that COVID-19 is much more likely to be passed when breathing and talking, not by touching surfaces.
And while the city of San Diego has not enforced many of the other COVID-related rules, such as citing people for not wearing masks in public, its staff spend multiple hours each week re-wrapping playgrounds in orange fences and caution tape.
A county spokeswoman said the decision to reopen playgrounds would have to be made at the state level, referring to guidance from the California Department of Public Health that says outdoor recreation areas, campgrounds and RV parks can all be open with restrictions, including that playgrounds be closed.
A California Department of Public Health spokesman declined repeated interview requests but answered questions over email. He confirmed playgrounds are also not part of any phased reopening plans.
He added that playgrounds have remained closed "due to low likelihood of physical distancing and inability to control density. Additionally, the possible large number of individuals touching the same surface, particularly younger children who are less likely to practice hand hygiene and wear masks consistently, are additional risk factors."
But Rebecca Fielding-Miller, an epidemiologist at UC San Diego, said that reasoning seems based on outdated knowledge about COVID-19.
"In the beginning, we thought this was primarily spread through surface contamination, and when thinking about how kids work, how high touch playgrounds are, it makes sense to want to close playgrounds," she said. "But it's now become clear that while surface transmission might still be an issue, it's primarily spread through aerosols. What that means is being outside is safer."
Fielding-Miller is particularly annoyed that the playground ban remains in force despite bars and restaurants being able to reopen indoors at limited capacity.
"If it's safe to go to a restaurant and drink inside, it's certainly safe for a kid to go down a slide," she said. "This is a palpable demonstration of who is and who isn't at the table when we talk about what to reopen. It speaks volumes about priorities and who is there to advocate for a low-risk environment that benefits families, especially families with young children who are often marginalized and almost forgotten about."
There could be some risk to playgrounds, she said, especially if adults congregate in groups at their edges and talk a lot without wearing masks. But, she said, if families take precautions--not going on a crowded play structure and washing hands frequently--the benefits of play structures outweigh the risks.
"I know a lot of families are stuck in small indoor spaces without yards, they need places for their kids to run around and play," she said.
Dr. Mark Sawyer, an infectious disease specialist at Rady Children's Hospital, said he worries more about kids not getting exercise and not socializing than the small chance they pick up the virus from a play structure that sits in the sun all day.
"Kids need to socialize, interact with other kids, otherwise it can have long term impacts on their behavioral and mental health," he said. "We spent the last two decades trying to get kids to be physically active, and now it's a challenge keeping kids active."
After an inquiry from KPBS, state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez said she planned to write a letter to the governor's office asking what the plan would be for reopening play structures.
"I think they forgot about it," Gonzalez said. "I can't understand, maybe it's a cleaning issue, but it should still be identified somewhere that this will reopen at some point, or it should be left up to counties and cities. My guess is there's no organized interest group pushing for it, you're not going to make money from playgrounds... But it needs to be on the list somewhere."
Gonzalez said the closures especially impact families in her district, which includes City Heights, Chula Vista and San Ysidro, who are more likely to live in apartments and not have backyards to use for play.
"They might have open space in a park, but little kids need climbing and play structures," she said.
While the playground rules apply across the state, some cities appear to not be enforcing them. Photos sent to KPBS from parents in Huntington Beach and Sacramento show playgrounds with no yellow caution tape and no signs saying playgrounds were closed, and children are playing on them.
In San Diego, park staff are committed to enforcing the county and state public health rules, spending at least an hour to rewrap playgrounds in caution tape after the tape has been "vandalized," said Tim Graham, a city spokesman.
"As you can imagine, the tape and fencing is vandalized or removed and staff have to work to put the signage and fencing back up which takes a bit of time in and of itself," he said. "Unfortunately, we are seeing some vandalism around the playgrounds related to removing the tape or fencing as people decide they want to use the playgrounds or just want to vandalize the tape and fencing."
The city has 279 playgrounds, but Graham was not able to give a number for how many hours a week staff are spending reapplying caution tape. He said no citations have been made, and if park staff see families using playgrounds, they've opted for an educational approach instead of writing tickets.
The city of San Diego's decision to not write mask citations but still enforce playground closures with yellow caution tape, orange fencing, and even roadblock signs padlocked to the top of slides looks like "security theater," said Fielding-Miller.
"It's their way to demonstrate something is being done," she said.
Some parents and kids are beginning to ignore the caution tape. On a recent post on the San Diego Mom Facebook group, several commenters said they pull the tape down or tell their kids to duck under it to play.
"Kids need the park," said Jessica Pruitt, who brought her two kids and nephew to Central Avenue Mini Park in City Heights one afternoon last week.
"They need to get their energy out, they need this, I need this," she said. "We tore the tape down last time, and we'll probably end up doing it again this time."
As she talked, her kids had already ducked the caution tape to climb up the playground structure and use the slide. Pruitt said at first she was committed to following the rules, but her resolve has weakened as the months have stretched on.
Other parents have taken a different approach, saying that while they may not agree with the rule, they don't want to teach their kids that they can choose what rules to follow and what rules to break.
Unfortunately for James McCann, that parenting group includes his mom, Liz.
"We're trying very hard to use some of this as a learning experience to point to, we need to keep other people safe and we need to do things to stay clean," she said. "I'm not trying to raise a little scofflaw."