The mild spring weather was perfect for basketball, and residents of West Philadelphia’s Mill Creek neighborhood went outside.
Adults and kids gathered on the concrete court and nearby on the sidelines Monday evening, playing games and sitting shoulder to shoulder. Neighbors said they counted more than three dozen people at the West Mill Creek playground that day — and few were taking precautions to ward off the spread of COVID-19.
“They were chest-bumping, popping fist bumps. They were living like there was nothing happening,” said Reatha Wilson, whose Reno Street house faces the courts.
After more than a month of a lockdown that has trapped people in their homes, prevented children from attending school, and resulted in the near-total shutdown of normal life, many are gravitating to parks and trails for exercise and fresh air. And in Philadelphia, where many residents have little access to private outdoor space, officials are struggling to keep people out of the parks.
In recent weeks, as officials warned that social distancing is one of the only ways to prepare for a surge in coronavirus cases, the Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Department closed athletic courts, took down basketball hoops, posted 6,000 signs, and locked fences.
But parks crews have already had to replace cut fencing at more than 40 sites, along with hundreds of broken locks, said department spokesperson Maita Soukup. At one site, vandals removed 70 feet of fencing around the perimeter so they could use the courts and playground.
The department took down basketball rims at 54 sites, and will do so at 31 more this week, Soukup said. Officials have been prioritizing the most popular sites, she said.
“If residents are still using courts despite clear signs and locked gates, those sites are flagged for further inspection and removal of rims where possible," she said in an e-mail.
Philadelphia police officers may issue $100 citations and fines to people who violate Mayor Jim Kenney’s “stay at home” order. But on Wednesday Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw said officers have to “pick their battles" when it comes to breaking up crowds. For example, when the department recently learned of a basketball game that was planned in advance, the department was able to contact the Parks & Recreation Department about getting the hoop taken down.
“The question that I’m asking our leadership to raise and I’m asking each and every officer to ask is, Is this the best use of our resources?” Outlaw said. “Do we really want to inject ourselves in a situation or do we need to inject ourselves in a situation that could make things worse?”
The National Park Service has closed more than 100 sites, including Valley Forge National Historic Park, saying visitors were parking illegally, littering, and worse.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy closed most state parks Tuesday, citing residents’ failure to follow social distancing orders, and state officials said law enforcement could issue fines for noncompliance. The next morning, runners and cyclists were still visiting Cooper River Park in Pennsauken.
Pennsylvania Heath Secretary Rachel Levine said this week that she didn’t know of plans to close state parks here, but added that “we are really relying on people in Pennsylvania to do the right thing. ... If you’re going to go out, to be active, to do that in a solitary way."
Delaware County basketball courts and playgrounds are roped off with caution tape. “Anything you can touch” is closed, County Council member Elaine Schaefer said, like bathrooms and water fountains. The county has received a few reports about people ignoring the tape and using playgrounds, but she said that, generally, people “are really trying very hard to socially distance while they’re recreating."
The lots at Bucks County and Chester County parks are closed to vehicles, though anyone who can walk to the trails can use them. Bucks County parks director Kevin S. Spencer said he was not aware of any concerns about people congregating in the parks, but on Wednesday, park rangers began patrolling to make sure.
Meanwhile, after getting reports from park rangers about crowded trails, Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh warned this week that she could shut them down.
“The more that people try to bend the rules, the more that they are out playing basketball with people who aren’t their household contacts, the longer this is going to last," she said Tuesday.
This week, as friends gathered at the West Mill Creek playground in West Philly, neighbor Evelyn Ruffin said she expected the police to intervene when she saw patrol cars pass.
“They just looked at the crowd and kept moving," she said.
Soukup said people can report crowded parks to 311, and said the Parks Department would pass those reports to district officers. Generally, she said warnings from police have been effective in discouraging people from gathering.
At the basketball court at Lemon Hill in Fairmount Park this week, a handful of people shot hoops alone, careful to keep their distance. Ryan Lantzy said he’s seen people playing pickup games recently.
“I just walk around the court and avoid it,” he said.
Staff writers Justine McDaniel, Anna Orso, Chris Palmer, Ellie Rushing and Pranshu Verma contributed to this story.