The scene at Lake of the Isles last weekend was reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s famous painting of Parisians lounging by the River Seine, only sprung forward to the time of the coronavirus.
On the parkways, families rode their bikes in a line, the children sandwiched between their parents. Behind them, canines mingled inside the dog park while their owners watched from the sidelines. On the lakefront, friends hooked bait to their fishing poles and cast lines out onto the water.
A month ago, Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus went into effect, allowing outdoor recreation. The order turned Minneapolis’ lakes and parks into an essential resource for people looking for respite — thrusting the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board into the spotlight.
At the helm of the decisionmaking is Superintendent Al Bangoura, in his second year as the leader of the parks system. Bangoura said in an interview that while he was proud of how the Park Board has acted to keep its green spaces open, tougher decisions lie ahead.
“We had a time where we were able to at least plan,” Bangoura said. “But as we see the warm weather coming ... we understand there’s going to be more volume and more people out at our locations.”
After saying he did not want to close outdoor amenities, Bangoura announced last week he would close athletic fields and playgrounds by May 1, removing basketball rims and tennis nets as other major cities have done. He said the closures were necessary after seeing the recommendations of health experts and a lack of social distancing at parks, where more than 125 complaints rolled in of large groups playing basketball, soccer and other sports.
Still, while fields are being closed, roads along the lakes and the Mississippi River are being opened to pedestrians. The Park Board has barricaded nearly 22 miles of parkways, posted thousands of signs encouraging social distancing and deployed 150 employees at popular parks to remind groups to stay at least 6 feet from one another.
Park Board commissioners differ in their beliefs of what should be opened or closed, but much of the responsibility now lies with Bangoura, who was granted expanded authority by the board for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. In interviews, commissioners and other city leaders touted Bangoura for his quick response and leadership throughout the pandemic.
“What you’re seeing with our parks superintendent and our entire staff, frankly, is a coordinated effort to be innovative and thoughtful and quickly move on major changes in the system at a time when people more than ever need our parks,” Park Board President Jono Cowgill said.
The Park Board’s actions, particularly around closing parkways after some initial prodding from residents, have gained national recognition.
About five weeks ago, Mike Lydon, who runs an urban planning and design firm in Brooklyn, began recording the number of streets cities closed off to provide more space for residents. Minneapolis quickly rose to the top of his list. Other cities have followed suit, including Oakland, Calif., where the mayor said 74 miles of roadway would be closed to through traffic.
“I think they’ve done it at a scale that starts to be meaningful to people,” said Lydon, who attributed the impact to the way Minneapolis’ parks system was designed last century. “Leveraging that is not something that every city can do at this point in time.”
The rollout has not been smooth, with some commissioners questioning the road closures in their districts and asking for them to be called back. A decision to reopen Lake Harriet Parkway to vehicles was criticized by park users; the Park Board kept it closed for an additional week while it figured out an alternative.
“I think the messaging has been confusing and inconsistent,” said City Council Member Linea Palmisano, whose ward surrounds the lake. “It really makes me frustrated that I don’t know from week to week what is going to be maintained.”
Commissioner Londel French said opening the parkways could invite people to popular areas instead of encouraging them to exercise around their neighborhoods or even stay home.
“I think we’re sending mixed messages,” French said. “We’re discouraging large gatherings in certain neighborhood parks, but we’re creating an environment for folks to gather in other areas.”
French said it would be an issue if basketball courts and soccer fields were closed but the parkways remained open to pedestrians, saying it would target the black and Latino children who use them. Although he may not agree with other commissioners about the current approach, he said he was comfortable with Bangoura in the lead.
“Being a decisionmaker right now is tough ... and sometimes all decisions that you make are not going to be popular with everybody,” French said. “I think history will judge how we performed at this time.”
Opening up the parkways and having parks employees remind people of social distancing shows how the Park Board is leading across the country in its response, Bangoura said. But facing warming weather and an estimated revenue loss of $3.4 million through June, tougher decisions lie ahead.
The system has frozen hiring, wage increases, travel, training and more. It may also not be able to keep the parkways open to pedestrians past the governor’s existing stay-at-home order, right now spending more than $128,000 to barricade them.
“We have real budget concerns for not only 2020, but 2021 and going forward,” Bangoura said. “We cannot simply afford to open up the parkways every single month at the current rate that we’re paying now.”
The board will continue to monitor how the parks are being used and follow the guidance from the state and other health officials, Bangoura said. For now, opening the parkways to pedestrians has been received well.
“The only vaccine right now to this pandemic is social distancing,” he said. “I’m learning as much as everyone else is learning at the same time.”
With that comes a trust that people will use the parks responsibly, said Commissioner Meg Forney, who regularly sees the joggers, cyclists and dog walkers along the Chain of Lakes.
“We haven’t had warm weather yet, and that’s when I think it’s going to be really challenging,” she said. “We’re going to be watching on pins and needles what’s going to be happening in the next couple of weeks.”