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Duluth to reopen playgrounds, resume some park services

Many buildings, including libraries and community centers, remain closed as the city awaits news of federal relief funds.

Lincoln Park playground
Children enjoy Duluth's Lincoln Park playground in July 2018. The city will reopen all public playgrounds on Thursday, nearly three months after they were forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (File / News Tribune)

Duluth's public playgrounds will reopen Thursday as state guidelines loosen on outdoor recreational opportunities.

More park activities also will be allowed to resume, though facilities will continue to have limited services and maintenance, said Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of properties, parks and libraries.

"We understand that restrictions on park use and limited city service levels are very frustrating to residents," Filby Williams said at a Wednesday news conference. "And I can assure you that our hardworking park maintenance team is frustrated, too. They urgently wish to be on the job of making our parks as beautiful and broadly usable as they normally are."

City facilities were forced to close to the public in March due to spread of COVID-19. And while many services have now been deemed safe to resume, it's the financial crunch brought on by the pandemic that is now preventing the resumption of some activities.

Notably, the city is working with only about one-third of the park maintenance workforce it typically employs from May to October, Filby Williams said.

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That means grass is being mowed less frequently, or not at all, in many locations. Garbage and recycling bins have been reduced and are being serviced less often. Public restrooms are out of order. And nearly all community centers remain closed.

"In the absence of our full parks workforce, we need, more than ever before, all parks visitors to do everything possible to be responsible stewards of our parks and to be considerate of other park users and residents who live near parks," Filby Williams said.

With attractions such as the Lake Superior Zoo , Great Lakes Aquarium and Glensheen recently announcing plans to reopen, Mayor Emily Larson said she understands questions about still-closed city services such as libraries.

Larson said she's hopeful that the state Legislature will provide some clarity on CARES Act funding when it reconvenes for a special session Friday. The federal government has allocated $667 million for counties, cities and townships in Minnesota, but it's unclear how that will be distributed.

"We still don't have the financial capacity to do everything," Larson said. "So I am hopeful that next week we can provide some more information that allows us to meet your needs, in line with health (guidelines), and that we have the financial capacity to do it."

Some limited park programming will resume Monday, Filby Williams said, but "will be adapted to reduce disease transmission per (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and state guidelines."

Jim Filby-Williams.png
Jim Filby-Williams, the city of Duluth's director of properties, parks and libraries, addresses the reopening of public playgrounds and the resumption of more park services during an online news conference Wednesday.

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He added that discussions are ongoing with community partners, including Hartley Nature Center, Chester Bowl Improvement Club and Gary-New Duluth Development Alliance to "support their gradual reopening and the resumption of the important services they provide."

Under state guidelines, sports such as tennis, golf and cycling are deemed to be low-risk and can return for practice and competition, with some safeguards in place. Team sports that are deemed medium- or high-risk can return only for practice at this point.

But Duluth's main athletic complexes โ€” Wheeler, Arlington and Jean Duluth โ€” won't yet be available for sports because the city doesn't have the personnel to maintain them, Filby Williams said.

He added that the city is working with the Duluth Area Family YMCA "in hopes that we can devise a mutually affordable way to operate at least some lifeguarding service" on the Park Point beach, which has gone unattended since reopening .

Meanwhile, Indian Point Campground has started accepting reservations, but only from visitors who have self-contained camping units with their own water and bathroom facilities.

City streets that had been closed to offer social distancing for pedestrians and cyclists โ€” portions of Skyline Parkway, Seven Bridges Road and Lincoln Park Drive โ€” will reopen to vehicle traffic on July 1.

Fliby Williams asked for patience from the public as the city works to rebuild its services, also noting that people should take safety precautions while visiting facilities. For example, he cautioned that the city isn't able to sanitize playground equipment.

"Playground use does involve behaviors that may result in disease transmission," he said, "and families, therefore, are using the playgrounds at their own risk."

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Larson said the state has accelerated the resumption of recreational opportunities. She didn't expect many of those activities to be allowed before July 1.

Larson said the city has been deliberate in not wanting to "cancel summer." But officials have had to proceed step-by-step based on constantly evolving health guidelines and city finances.

"We will revisit every one of these decisions with the hope that we can bring summer back into some of these realities that I know are really, really important to you," the mayor vowed.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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