Denton city leaders will allow dog parks and playgrounds to reopen Monday, along with walk-up visitors to service windows at City Hall and City Hall East, even as they extended Friday the pandemic disaster declaration through June 30.
The declaration aligns the city with the latest state and county orders, which continue to encourage Texans to stay at home as much as possible to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The city staff walked council members through plans to slowly reopen some city facilities through the summer. The city’s parks director, Gary Packan, told council members during a virtual meeting that the dog parks and playgrounds have proved a hot-button issue for some residents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not recommend that either be open for public use. The novel coronavirus is believed to have first transferred from an animal to humans, and researchers don’t know yet whether family pets contribute to transmission as some pets have contracted the virus. In addition, children can be uniquely vulnerable to debilitating and deadly complications from COVID-19.
However, some families are looking for relief in the long, hot summer ahead. Council member Keely Briggs said parents have asked her about access to more parks facilities outdoors, including the playgrounds.
“I’m getting lots of emails from parents that have been careful in every other way,” Briggs said.
Packan told council members that larger cities have been more cautious about reopening parks and recreation facilities, likely because those cities, like Denton, have more people sick with the virus. Yet, some smaller Texas cities never closed them.
“There’s not a lot of consistency,” Packan said.
Council member Jesse Davis said he agreed that, of all the city’s parks, recreation and library programs, the outdoor playgrounds and dog parks are likely a lower risk to city officials than other options.
“We are placing the social distancing responsibility on the parents,” Davis said. “At the pool and at summer camps, you don’t have parental involvement.
“That’s a risk we can’t take,” he said, adding that more people have contracted the virus in Denton than in other cities in the area.
Both Denton and Lewisville have logged more than 200 active cases since tracking began in March. In a dozen other Denton County towns and cities, less than 10 people have been reported sick.
Council members agreed with the staff recommendation that city pools and the splash pad remain closed for the summer. Packan said the splash pad in Carl Young Park was too small for children to be able to stay six feet away from each other as they played.
They also agreed that the city could not take the risk of starting summer camp programs, even though they are essential, affordable child care for some families.
“I agree that we have to go with things that are self-managed,” council member Gerard Hudspeth said. “If we’re going to open [a program], I want to make sure we’re committed.”
In other words, Hudspeth said, parents could be put in a bind if a camp program opened and then had to close again after someone got sick.
Council members also agreed with a plan to reopen the North Lakes Recreation Center on June 22. Packan said the staff is reconfiguring fitness equipment and worked out a cleaning plan, including a midday closure each day, to reduce exposure. Users would not be able to access the showers or lockers as part of the plan.
Between now and June 22, the Denton Public Library is adding two new services to its current curbside checkouts: computer and Wi-Fi use by appointment and virtual video consults with librarians.
The appointment space will be limited and must be scheduled in advance, but individuals who need to use computers, or come inside the library to access the Wi-Fi, will be able to make appointments beginning June 2.
On June 22, the library hopes to announce additional services, said Jennifer Bekker, director of libraries.
City Manager Todd Hileman said employees, their supervisors and department heads have the authority to enforce social distancing at city facilities as they open. However, the city decided they won’t require visitors to wear masks.
He and City Attorney Aaron Leal studied the issue and told council members requiring masks could become a legal risk for the city because of the current political climate. In other words, the risk comes from someone suing the city for requiring masks, not from someone who got sick at the library or the rec center because others weren’t wearing a mask.
The council’s sole public comment Friday on the disaster declaration came from a caller who said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was not to be trusted, citing a four-year-old letter as evidence. He also cited, without evidence, that face masks were harmful to human health.
Fact-checkers have debunked this claim, which persists on social media, as false. Only the most restrictive respirators (as used by paramedics and health care professionals) and not cloth or surgical masks may affect blood oxygen levels when used over a very long time by someone who was very ill, experts say.
Instead, Hileman said the city is counting on people’s better angels to help protect the city staff and wear a mask when they come for public business or to use a public facility.
“We’re asking people to be good stewards and respect each other and keep each other safe,” Hileman said. “We’re going to do the best we can, and we’re going to rely on other people to be Good Samaritans.”