On a warm afternoon in mid-May, about a week after Boulder County lifted its stay-at-home order, cooped-up young people flocked to Eben G. Fine Park to swim in the creek. City and county officials soon learned they had a problem.
“Apparently, this is all over social media now,” said Jeffrey Zayach, the county health department’s executive director, in an email to Boulder Police Chief Maris Herold.
A video circulating on Twitter showed people packing the creek cheek to jowl without masks. Media reports showed images of trash left behind. Complaints from residents poured into city officials’ inboxes: “What if someone was openly firing a handgun in a public park? Is that much different than walking around spreading potentially a life-threatening illness?”
Within hours of the media reports, Boulder City Manager Jane Brautigam ordered access to the creek at Eben G. Fine Park closed. Public health officials played little role in the decision to fence off the creek, though they supported the emergency order. The city said it plans to keep access restricted to limit large gatherings, especially at a time when COVID-19 cases have been rising in Colorado.
But the closure comes as cities are expanding access to the outdoors, where the risk of spreading the coronavirus is relatively low compared to indoors. In Denver, several streets were converted to “shared streets” that enable more people to exercise and get fresh air while keeping distance. People visiting the park last week said the creek is one of the few free places they can go to cool off and better cope with a pandemic that has dragged on for months.
“The creek allows for access to affordable swimming. We get families that come in groups of eight and they’re able to swim and not worry about expenses and feeling like they’re too close to one another,” said Danessa Garcia, an 18-year-old from Denver who was at the park last week.
Eben G. Fine Park is not the only place where water access is restricted in Boulder. Wading into the Boulder Reservoir is prohibited. One-hour deep water swimming reservations are available for $15 for residents and $20 for non-residents. A spokesperson for Boulder Parks and Recreation said financial aid is available to obtain reduced rates. Some pools can be reserved in 30-minute increments.
“Who can swim in 30 minutes?” said Mariasol Gonzales, a 46-year-old who came to Eben G. Fine Park last week from Denver. “To come to a place like this and to be able to see a smile and know that there is still laughter, it helps boost your spirit and it helps you for the next day and to keep going.”
Temperatures have been hot this month along the Front Range. And like the coronavirus, heat, too, kills Black people at higher rates than white people, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Boulder, a city that is more white than the rest of Colorado, Eben G. Fine Park is among the city’s most diverse community centers on a summer afternoon.
“Open spaces, parks and playgrounds are places that positively contribute to health,” said Glen Mays, who chairs the Colorado School of Public Health. “We already have unequal access to those kinds of venues to begin with due to residential segregation, income and race and ethnicity. I think we have to be very cautious about unintentionally exacerbating those kinds of inequities through the kinds of policies that we’re talking about here even though these kinds of policies are put in place with good intentions.”
He said governments should be looking for ways to encourage more activity outdoors where the risk of spreading the coronavirus is lower. Thus far, large gatherings during the Black Lives Matter protests failed to cause a case spike despite early warnings, public health officials say, as mask use was high and protests were outdoors.
Meanwhile, businesses on Pearl Street in Boulder and across the state are largely open, including restaurants serving people indoors. Outbreaks have occurred in dozens of restaurants and 11 retail locations in Colorado, infecting at least 236 employees, according to state data.
County health officials have not produced evidence that the large gatherings at the creek before Memorial Day caused an uptick in cases. However, people ages 21 to 29 make up the age group with the most confirmed cases in Boulder County, according to county data.
City and county officials say they have struck a balance to limit large gatherings and still allow access to the creek. The Boulder Creek is accessible east of Eben G. Fine Park, including at a popular location near the library. Picnic tables, a playground, a drinking water fountain and bathrooms are open at the park. And there’s a section along the creek to put in a tube, raft or kayak.
“We hope this compromise helps to protect residents and visitors while providing open spaces and activities they can still participate in safely,” said Chana Goussetis, a spokeswoman for the Boulder County Department of Public Health.
But Garcia didn’t have a tube. Besides, she said, she comes to the park for the community, something she said changed when the white metal fences went up.
“You see Latinos, whites, Blacks — you see us all swimming together because that’s a sense of community,” Garcia said. “You should be able to feel a sense of freedom when you go outside.”
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