Locked gates at FDR Park’s ballfields

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After getting called out on social media, the Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation is planning to reopen nearly a dozen public spaces in the city that have been closed since the start of the month.

All city-run playgrounds and basketball courts always stay open during the winter. That’s true even this year, during the pandemic. Philly’s most recent Safer at Home guidelines state that parks, trails, playgrounds and athletic fields can remain open for individual use — just not for group activities.

In any given year, however, a handful of the city’s 260 grassy areas get shut down for the cold season.

From December to March, the fields at sites like Capitolo Playground in East Passyunk and Roberto Clemente in Fairmount are closed to the public.

Usually there’s an exception: you can use the fields if you obtain a permit. But Parks & Rec isn’t issuing permits during the pandemic, so they were effectively off limits for the entire season.

That’s about to change, thanks to some input from neighbors.

On Twitter this week, a resident posted a pic of the field at Capitolo, wondering why it was locked during perfectly good playtime on a Sunday morning — especially given it’s one of few socially distant outdoor options for families in the area.

Others jumped in, noting frustration that swaths of green space were closed in their neighborhoods, too.

Parks & Rec responded quickly to the tweets. The person posting from the Twitter account wrote that the city would change things up this year, and would commit to unlocking these fields for “individual and household use.”

The tweet indicated a policy change across the system, albeit one impacting a small number of facilities. Is it really happening? According to a department spokesperson, yes.

“We hear the need for residents to have more green space available now, as many other activities have been put on hold due to COVID,” said Parks & Rec spokesperson Maita Soukup. “We are in the process of making more fields accessible during COVID.”

Details like exactly when the facilities that are going to be opened will be unlocked remain unclear. For the time being, it appears the city is accepting suggestions via email.

Soukup noted that some of the fields are locked off for reasons other than the cold weather, including community concerns like “dog excrement, broken glass or tire treads in the grass.”

Meantime, Parks & Rec will need to identify staffers who can facilitate the openings. The department is short on human resources, because many rec center employees have been deployed to work at the Access Centers where more than 2,000 School District of Philadelphia students are doing remote learning.

“As a result,” Soukup said, “we have not had the same staff presence at sites to respond to deal with this type of issue in real time.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...