Alabama’s public parks, greenspaces adjusting to COVID-19 crisis

Alabama’s public parks, greenspaces adjusting to COVID-19 crisis
Birmingham's Railroad Park is among the parks remaining open for those who want to get some exercise. The parks' playground and usual gathering areas are closed. (Michael Sznajderman/Alabama NewsCenter)

With most people confined to their homes during the COVID-19 crisis, escaping to a beautiful park or public greenspace has been one of the few healthy respites from coronavirus cabin fever.

Shelter-in-place rules that have been imposed in places like Birmingham generally have an exception to allow people to walk or bike or hike in their neighborhoods and beyond – as long as social distancing and other hygiene protocols are observed.

But as people rush to parks to enjoy the spring weather, some have had to adjust to maintain public health and safety. In some communities, parks have closed altogether.

In the Birmingham suburb of Homewood, for example, park facilities are closed. Same goes for Turkey Creek Nature Preserve in the northern Birmingham suburb of Pinson, and the city pier and north beach area in the Mobile suburb of Fairhope. Mobile city parks, meanwhile, remain open, although officials are strongly advising visitors to adhere to social distancing standards. Parks also are open in Tuscaloosa and Tuscaloosa County, although community centers have closed and programming has been suspended.

“We have beautiful parks and walking paths our residents can take advantage of to enhance their mental, physical and emotional well-being,” said Anitra Belle Henderson, director of community affairs with the city of Mobile.

“We are following the joint guidelines provided by CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the National Recreation and Park Association that are encouraging people to get out and exercise by walking, biking, running and skating on trails and various paved paths within the park system. However, we do discourage people from using playground equipment, workout stations, water fountains, restrooms and pavilions,” Henderson added.

In Birmingham, the city Park and Recreation Board shuttered all facilities, including dozens of community parks, until April 6. But the nonprofit-operated Railroad Park is open with officials there encouraging social distancing. Park staff have removed all tables and chairs from the central pavilion to discourage large gatherings.

Across the city at the nonprofit Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve, a surge in visitors and overflow parking issues raised health and safety concerns, leading staff to close restrooms and pavilions. The preserve’s nature center had already been closed to visitors. Walking and hiking trails at Ruffner are now restricted to members and city of Birmingham residents. “While we support exercise and getting out in the fresh air, we are asking visitors to think before they put themselves, our staff, others and first responders at risk,” said a statement on Ruffner’s website.

At Alabama State Parks, many of which are in rural areas, facilities are open but new restrictions are being put in place.

Officials have now closed beaches and beach access – not only at Gulf State Park but at other parks that have freshwater reservoirs, such as the popular beach area at Oak Mountain State Park. About half of the state’s 21 parks have some type of beach access.

Individuals and families can still camp and reserve spaces for recreational vehicles at state parks, but restaurant facilities are limited to offering takeout only, and all gift shops and stores are closed. Playgrounds and playground equipment, and caves at Rickwood and Cathedral Caverns state parks, also are closed.

“Right now, it’s a good time and it’s a challenging time,” said Jerry Weisenfeld, promotions manager for Alabama State Parks.

“We are here for the enjoyment, recreation and relaxation of the people of Alabama,” Weisenfeld said. He encouraged visitors to practice safe, social distancing, but acknowledged that “not all are following the rules.”

“Just like everybody else, we are trying to encourage only small groups or no groups at all,” Weisenfeld said.

Beth Thomas contributed to this report.

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