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Minneapolis commissioner: Crowded parkways don't help against coronavirus

Commissioner Kale Severson says opening Minneapolis parkways for pedestrians has turned them into a public health risk.

Commissioner Kale Severson says opening Minneapolis parkways for pedestrians has turned them into a public health risk. Gen Stubbe, Star Tribune

There's only so much of Minneapolis. When everyone who doesn't already live together is supposed to stay (at least) six feet apart at all times, that poses an interesting problem.

Back in March, just days after Gov. Tim Walz first issued a stay-at-home order to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, local parks started filling with anxious Minnesotans trying to stretch their legs and take in scenery beyond what they could see from their windows.

Last month the Minneapolis Parks and Rec Board announced it would close off sections of two parkways straddling the Mississippi River to cars and reserve them for pedestrian use—a sort of human shunt to alleviate pressure on the crowded parks.

The closed roads include both lanes of West River Parkway between North Plymouth Avenue and South 11th Avenue (besides a spot near the Stone Arch Bridge parking lot) and both lanes on Southeast Main Street between Hennepin and Southeast Third Avenue. With exceptions for emergency services or delivery drivers, they’re supposed to remain impassible to vehicles until the lockdown is over.

Last month, Park Board President Jono Cowgill said he looked forward to announcing additional parkway closures.

“This has been a collaborative effort with the city of Minneapolis in response to the people we serve and their need for social distancing within parks and public spaces,” Cowgill said.

Park Board Commissioner Kale Severson disagrees. On Saturday, Severson, who represents north Minneapolis, penned a lengthy Facebook post, saying leaving the parkways to walkers, joggers, and bicyclists makes Minneapolis more likely to spread disease, not less.

“I’ve seen a serious lack of social distancing on parkways that have been opened by President Cowgill as part of this pilot,” he wrote. “As a commissioner, I’ve seen time and again that when we create places for people to congregate they do just that… I believe we should stay home as much as possible to protect those that are the most vulnerable.”

A few commenters agreed, saying they’ve been “uncomfortable” or “shocked” by the number of people milling about the parkways these days.

“if we all work together to keep our time in parks limited for a little while, we’ll be back in them sooner,” one commenter said.

Severson did not respond to interview requests.

Cowgill sent City Pages a statement saying there was a “clear need” for the parkway closure. During this “difficult time,” parks are some of the few destinations we still have available to us—other than, say, the bathroom, or the kitchen for the 15th time in one afternoon.

“Six-foot-wide trails are not always wide enough for walkers to physically distance safely,” Cowgill said. “Unlike other places around the state, we have the blessing and challenge of having the most visited regional park areas in the state.”

Cowgill says the city is taking measures to keep things safe, including informative signage and “a large number of park ambassadors” deployed to control crowds in busy areas. The parkways, he said, will remain open throughout the remainder of the stay-at-home order, which is supposed to last until at least May 4.

So far, two dozen or so violations have been reported throughout the state since March, according to the Star Tribune. As with the first set of charges under the emergency order, most have been slapped on in addition to other reports of misbehavior, such as a man caught exposing his crotch to various passersby on a Pine City bike path, and a Baxter man attempting to keep his (nonessential) lingerie store, Risky Business, open to the public.

Still, overall, Minnesota seems to be doing a decent job flattening the curve. Nearly 40,000 people in the state have been tested—1,700 of them with positive results. About 177 are in the hospital, 75 in intensive care units. So far, we’ve seen 79 reported deaths.