When it comes to the city’s latest actions to help slow the spread of COVID-19 as we enter the long-predicted second phase of the virus, it feels like a tale of two City Halls. On the one hand, we have the mayor creating a slew of new restrictions on gatherings that urge Philadelphians to stay at home. But on the other hand, all of the public space around City Hall itself has just transformed into a once-a-year tourist attraction packed with activities for the whole family.
How can the city tell us we’re safer at home, then invite us to come gather at City Hall?
In response to rising COVID cases, Mayor Jim Kenney and the Philadelphia Department of Public Health recently announced a series of new restrictions on public and private activities titled, succinctly, “Safer at Home.” Among those new restrictions: prohibiting fans from gathering to attend Eagles games; prohibiting recreational activities and sports for youth, community groups, and schools; and limiting all outdoor gatherings to 10% occupancy, or 10 persons per 1,000 square feet. These guidelines also prohibit food and beverages from being served at any outdoor gathering to ensure people can keep their masks on while allowing outdoor dining at restaurants but only parties of four from the same household. These are restrictions that, based on my observations, are being ignored all around City Hall with the launch of Dilworth Park’s Made in Philadelphia Holiday Market and LOVE Park’s Christmas Village.
» READ MORE: The current Philadelphia coronavirus guidelines
The activities at Dilworth Park feature 19 vendors, food and drink areas, an ice skating rink, and a carousel. Dilworth’s own website suggests that you “beat the weekend crowds and shop, eat and be merry” by coming during the weekdays instead of on the weekends. This is a stark contrast to Philadelphia’s own Department of Public Health recommendation that you beat the crowds by staying at home.
If you’re as curious about how an ice skating rink got approved when all recreational activities for youth have been prohibited, you’re not alone. According to the city’s guidelines, ice skating is allowed so long as people “maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet from all other participants at all times.” But when I visited, that rule was not being followed — and really, how it could be?
Across the street, there’s 40-plus more vendors at LOVE Park’s Christmas Village, including more food and drink.
This is a familiar scene this time of year to many Philadelphians, because Dilworth Park, LOVE Park, and City Hall Courtyard have transformed around the holidays to attract visitors, raise money for the parks, and to invite the city to celebrate the holidays together. All of these attractions, though technically under two different banners, are located on adjacent blocks, and the average person would assume they’re overseen by the same groups.
But while these three public spaces live right next to each other, they are managed by two different entities. LOVE Park and City Hall Courtyard are publicly managed, like most parks around Philly, by the Parks and Recreation Department. Dilworth is privately managed by the Center City District. When it comes to the public space around Philadelphia’s City Hall, there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, and unfortunately, none of them seemed to be on the same page as the city’s public health officials.
It’s confusing, and it feels like the city is playing make-believe. At best, it’s possible that the many planners of these holiday activities were hopeful about where we’d be with this virus at this point, despite months of warnings that this winter would bring a second wave. At worst, it feels like a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do move from city leaders who want to continue to overprogram these parks in an effort to pull some money into their budgets.
Maybe if these public spaces were more unified and under a singular control, ideally by parks and rec, there could have been a more comprehensive strategy for how to create a limited holiday experience around City Hall amid the pandemic. This would also have allowed the organizers more time to bring the bulk of the holiday vendor market online like the countless other holiday markets around the city that have moved online this year in favor of public safety.
When the city is telling us we’re safer at home, city leaders shouldn’t then ask us to gather en masse at their front door.
Conrad Benner is a public space blogger and founder of StreetsDept.com.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this piece said there were 50 attractions at Dilworth Park. There are 19. The Inquirer regrets the error.