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Q&A: St. Louis Health Director On Playground Reopenings And More

The playground at Tilles Park in Northampton has been taped off since spring.
Rachel Lippmann
The playground at Tilles Park in Northampton, photographed on Sept. 17, has been taped off for months.

The City of St. Louis has restricted playground access since March while bars, restaurants and even bowling alleys have reopened. Officially, that’s remained the case even as St. Louis County eased its playground regulations, promising to disinfect playground equipment several times per week and requiring masks for adults.

In recent weeks, the city has stopped taping off some city playgrounds. (Others, listeners report, remain taped up.) And Dr. Fredrick Echols, director of the city’s health department, suggested Friday on St. Louis on the Air that the city is the process of a soft opening — though he clarified when pressed that they remain closed for now, pending signage and official reopening by the mayor. He suggested an announcement opening them was imminent.

Echols discussed on air with Sarah Fenske what has driven the city’s playground policy. He also addressed the city’s approach to youth sports in light of the loosening of guidelines in St. Louis County.

Here are highlights of the conversation:

Sarah Fenske: How is it that the bars have been open while playgrounds remained closed?

Fredrick Echols: The City of St. Louis [has] been really adamant about making sure we softly reopen some of the places that are prone to social gathering, and the playgrounds are one of those places. But to be clear, the parks within the city — so we have over 100 over parks in the city of St. Louis — have been open. But we've just been really cautious about the playgrounds. That's really important, especially when we're looking at individuals that would typically gather at playgrounds.

So when we think of playgrounds, we typically think of children; one of the things that we learned about children is that they can be prone are more prone to developing severe complications associated with COVID-19, such as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. And so some of the recommendations that we maintained in the city of St. Louis have been to protect our most of our most vulnerable populations. And we've done a great job of that, especially with children. Right now, individuals under the age of 19 account for only 7.7% of the COVID-19 cases, so the measures have been working.

Fenske: Are playgrounds now open?

Echols: We're working to get proper signage up [that are] necessary to remind individuals that we're still in the middle of a pandemic, and there are certain measures that they still need to adhere to and implement to protect themselves and their children. So we're hoping that the signage will be up today. And then we'll be working really closely with the Parks Department division with the city of St. Louis to open them in a safe and responsible way.

Fenske: So the reopening is going to be an ongoing process, not as simple as saying once the signs are up, they're open?

Echols: There'll be a message that goes out through the mayor's office [in the coming days] to let the community know that the playgrounds will be open.

Fenske: What about sports restrictions in schools? Is the City of St. Louis considering relaxing those restrictions?

Echols: We have to remind ourselves of the intent of the guidelines that are in place. Our intent in the city is to make sure that we are protecting the health of our most vulnerable populations, and children are a part of that group. So we developed our guidelines. We continue to have ongoing discussions with athletic directors and coaches across the city of St. Louis to make sure they have infection control plans in place and operation plans in place for all sports offered at the institution. And when we get to a point where we feel like it's safe, we will work with them to resume youth sports in a safe and responsible way.

Fenske: Would you like to see some effort to get the St. Louis Public Schools back in person? Or are we just not ready for that yet here in St. Louis?

Echols: Our focus when we were developing our reentry guidelines was to make sure that every school in the city of St. Louis had a well-developed infection control plan. And so every [private school that resumed in-person instruction] did their due diligence and developed a plan and actually implemented the plan.

And what we're finding is a lot of the transmission is not occurring in schools, but what is happening is transmission is occurring in the community. And so we're having to really work more closely with parents to make sure they understand the importance of adhering to the prevention measures that we talked about day in and day out. And one of the things that came to the health department's attention was that sometimes there has been misinformation that was shared to the child by their parent — and that can cause points of contention in the school. And so we really need to make sure that parents also understand the importance of adhering to the prevention measures that we talk about every day.

Fenske: Will the public be able to access meetings of the health department’s joint Board of Health and Hospitals on YouTube?

Echols: We've started having some discussions about that. At this point in time, there's a lot of critical information that's being shared in the health department's Board of Health and Hospitals board meetings. And we think that this information may be beneficial for the community at large to understand why certain things are happening across the city, and why certain measures and mitigation strategies are being implemented. And so we have some ongoing discussions about that, and hopefully, that may change over the upcoming weeks.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Emily is the senior producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.
Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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