Local Residents and Officials Petition Governor to Reverse Edict
Public outcry against the closures of Liberty State Park and Lincoln Park in Jersey City as mandated by Governor Phil Murphy has surfaced and is growing. The parks are closed as part of the governor’s edict that all state and county parks be closed to protect against the spread of Covid-19.
Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea and Jersey City Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey have petitioned the state Department of Environmental Protection to modify the order in order to give residents a safe alternative to the “stay-at-home” anti-COVID-19 strategy.
While praising the governor for his leadership in taking steps to control the virus, the two officials suggest that some parks should be re-opened if local and county governments can enforce social distancing.
“In the case of Lincoln Park, a county park in Jersey City, we think that is the case,” they say in an April 8 letter to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe and Matthew Platkin, the governor’s chief counsel. “In fact, in Hudson County we have the capability in our larger parks to do so.”
The letter notes that in Lincoln and other like-sized parks, the county has already removed all picnic tables, soccer goals and basketball rims and closed all playgrounds, tracks and bathrooms and, where possible, locked playing fields in order to decrease opportunities for close proximity to someone else. Even tennis courts have been made off limits given players’ potential for proximity at the net and that “even a tennis ball … can spread the disease.”
Referring to Lincoln Park specifically, O’Dea and Prinz-Arey explain, “The park was now reduced to an area that allowed dog walkers and bikers, walkers and joggers around the ring road.” And the park is now closed to vehicular traffic for four hours a day to further minimize possible gatherings.
In the two weeks since the park was reconfigured, county sheriff’s officers assigned to patrol duties uncovered only two violations of the posted park restrictions — both on the first day of the new rules: one group playing volleyball and another, soccer, and both were peacefully dispersed, the letter related.
As a compromise, the officials ask McCabe and Platkin to set up “social distancing secure park criteria” that would allow counties to appeal to the state for an exemption from the governor’s executive order.
These criteria could be the very restrictions that had been in place before the wholesale park closures — plus, for Lincoln Park, new restrictions on park hours (such as being open only six to eight hours a day), deploying sheriff’s officers and new park patrol officers to enforce the measures, and monitoring activity via 24-hour-a-day CCTV cameras.
Failure to comply with these conditions or to prevent social distancing violations would compel a park closure, they suggest.
As things now stand, the letter says, “Many good law-abiding citizens are being penalized for a few [violators]. If we can show how to address those few, then let us open the park again.”
Asked how her west side constituents have reacted to the 270-acre park’s closure, Prinz-Arey said, “It’s been a mixed response, but I would say many more are in favor of keeping it open.” Park patrols and cameras should help deter would-be violators, she added.
For many Ward B residents without a front or back yard to enjoy fresh air, dealing with the stay-at-home edict is more challenging, Prinz-Arey noted. With municipal parks off-limits, “Lincoln Park and Liberty Park are the best options.”
Also voicing support for reopening Lincoln Park and Liberty State Park for outdoor exercise was Downtown Councilman James Solomon, who has also pushed for “opening streets to pedestrians, bicyclists and emergency vehicles only” to effectively create more space for people outdoors.
“There can be clear lanes for walking and running in the same direction to reduce the potential for passing each other. It is unlikely groups of people will congregate in the middle of a street as they might in a park. Denver and other cities have adopted the initiative seemingly to good effect. I asked Mayor [Steve] Fulop’s and our transportation team to review and I hope we will implement.”
Even regular citizens are organizing. Jersey City resident Rasika W. Boice started an online petition regarding Lincoln Parksaying this:
“To close the one place where we’ve been able to consistently go and maintain a safe distance from others seems counterintuitive at best, dangerous at worst.”
If the park stays shut, it continues, “it’ll be near impossible to go outside without breaking social distancing rules, particularly as it gets warmer. The sidewalks will become more crowded. And there will be more interactions — and risk — for law enforcement, who will be called on to manage that.
As of April 18, the petition had 198 signatures.
And let’s not forget about the kids. They’ve been away from their teachers and classmates for nearly a month now. They’re missing those interactions. And they’re losing the benefits of those interactions. But nature can help. … Seeing that turtle bask in the sun, quietly following ducks across an empty baseball field, watching a hawk glide through the sky — they are also a source of joy.
What we can’t imagine bringing those same benefits, or joy, is zigzagging around the face masks and disposable gloves littering the sidewalks.
And, last but not least, with the streets of Jersey City being as pedestrian unfriendly as they are — with recent spikes in traffic injuries and fatalities — the park is the safer choice for children riding bikes or scooters.”
The petition does endorse breaking up gatherings, “reprimanding” social distance violators and marking benches and potential high-congestion spots like the pond area off-limits. “But to generally close the park to everyone is not the answer,” it insists. “It will only lead to overcrowding on the streets and sidewalks. It will hurt the community’s mental and physical health. And then, it will help the virus spread.”
Of course, the 1,200-acre Liberty State Park in Jersey City’s Greenville neighborhood is now closed as well. But given that that asset belongs to the state, not the county, many state legislators in addition to county and city officials have weighed in. Their positions are mixed.
Democratic State Sen. Brian Stack, who is also mayor of Union City, supports full closure, according to an aide. State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, a Jersey City Democrat, declined to comment. Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber, from Morris Plains, has petitioned for reopening because he finds the state’s decision hypocritical and arbitrary.
“As you have repeatedly observed, access to fresh air and exercise for our citizenry, especially during this stressful time, is paramount,” the petition says. “For that reason, safely and responsibly using our state’s open spaces should continue to be encouraged, not prohibited.”
The petition says the governor should trust residents to make “common-sense and responsible choices” to comply with social distancing rules while continuing to use state recreational resources.
“Break up and prevent use of the parks that violate those guidelines, as you should. Keep state restrooms and facilities closed, we understand. But do not close the parks altogether,” it says.
The petition further notes that bordering states like New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware have all kept their parks open. “We live in the most densely populated state in the Union, and our open space is too precious to us to have it taken away arbitrarily, especially in a time of crisis.”
Jersey City resident Sarah Ordway takes Webber’s argument one step further. In an online petition to reopen Liberty State Park, she asserts that keeping public parks closed could worsen the pandemic:
“With all city and county parks closed in Jersey City, residents found solace and social distance in Liberty State Park’s 1,200 acres of open space. Now, the only green space we had left is closed, leaving those of us without yards to resort to streets or sidewalks — spaces unsuitable for physical distancing. This decision could actually make the spread of COVID-19 worse, as our large population becomes confined to narrow strips of pavement.”
Two Downtown Jersey City residents who signed her petition heartily concur. Christy Sayre wrote that the park offered residents “our best opportunity for social distancing out of doors,” and Joe Vita commented, “LSP was the only space we can escape to and still have plenty of room for social distancing.”
As of April 18, Ordway’s petition to reopen Liberty State Park had 236 signatures versus a goal of 500.
For more on Liberty State Park, see publisher Aaron Morrill’s April 7 op-ed on closing state parks during the coronavirus pandemic and his January 4 op-ed on saving Caven Point from development.
Header: Lincoln Park by David Wilson/Jersey City Times file photo