Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Superintendent Al Bangoura knew his decision to close outdoor athletic courts and fields would hit the city hard.
Yet he was surprised that the biggest backlash would come from the people looking to work on their backhands.
“I cannot express to you the blowback that I’m getting on this,” Bangoura said at a virtual neighborhood meeting Tuesday. “The funny part about it is, it’s not even basketball. It’s tennis players.”
Since the Park Board announced the closures last week to enforce social distancing, employees have begun removing nets and locking gates at more than 120 tennis courts across the city.
Tennis players have questioned why the Park Board wants to shut down a sport in which players are on opposite sides of a long court, with plenty of space between each other and no physical contact. An online petition to reopen the courts had gathered nearly 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Park Board leaders have said the decision was based on guidance from the Minneapolis Health Department, anecdotal evidence from parks employees and complaints sent to the city and state. Last week, the Health Department told the Park Board that while social distancing is possible during singles play, tennis courts should be closed because people have played games of doubles and have congregated at them.
It was also based on what has already happened across the country. A recent survey from the National Recreation and Park Association showed 85% of urban park systems had closed all outdoor sports fields and courts as of April 17.
The United States Tennis Association (USTA), which at one point recommended halting all tennis play, released new recommendations last week encouraging facilities to make their own decisions on reopening courts while ensuring social distancing.
Becky Cantellano, the executive director of USTA Northern, said she felt tennis courts were being “lumped in” with basketball courts, soccer fields and other playing spaces where contact is more likely. On Wednesday, she sent a letter to Gov. Tim Walz encouraging him to treat tennis courts like golf courses, which he allowed to reopen earlier this month.
InnerCity Tennis relies on the city’s courts for its youth summer program that starts in mid-June. Executive Director John Wheaton said while he understood the Park Board’s decision, his staff could help ensure players keep their distance on the courts, as is done at grocery stores.
“Tennis is just a great sport for kids,” he said. “If we don’t give kids something, they find alternatives that aren’t as healthy.”
The Park Board will eventually reopen its fields and start “social-distancing programs,” Bangoura said at the neighborhood meeting Tuesday. It will ask people to do their own “self-policing” at courts and encourage them to play singles tennis.
Julie Wicklund, an epidemiologist formerly with the Minnesota Department of Health, was saddened to see the nets taken down at Lynnhurst Park, where she and her family play. She e-mailed Bangoura and Park Board commissioners looking for ways they could stay open.
“I’m not on this crusade just for tennis,” Wicklund said. “Tennis is a passion of mine, but my passion is, how are we going to live with this virus as we move forward in the months and potentially years to come?”