The City of Omaha has closed its parks because too many people failed to follow regulations designed to slow the spread of COVID-19, Mayor Jean Stothert said Wednesday.
Stothert said that behavior in some of the parks last weekend was especially troubling.
Coaches brought their sports teams onto playing fields, showing no concern for the 6-foot social distancing regulation, she said. People took their children onto playground equipment, ignoring signs that asked people not to use the equipment, and in some cases tearing down the signs.
Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said cars will be towed from the parking lots and misdemeanor tickets will go to people in the lots and in the parks.
Dog parks are closed now as well. The city’s trail system remains open, although parking lots at trailheads are closed. City golf courses remain open.
The announcement ratcheted up guidelines and rules that have been put in place by local and state governments to slow the surge of the virus, which Stothert said is expected to peak in Nebraska on April 23 and 24. The parks will be closed until April 30, she said.
Parks have presented challenges to many cities during this period, leading to varied policies. The City of Bellevue on Wednesday announced that it would close its playgrounds. The City of Papillion has taken down public-park basketball rims.
Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird said it hasn’t been necessary to close that city’s parks.
If gatherings are limited to 10, if people stay 6 feet away from one another and if they stay off equipment and don’t play contact sports, Gaylor Baird said, the parks will stay open.
Stothert said the decision Wednesday in Omaha was not a blanket accusation. “For the most part, most Omahans have been very compliant,” Stothert said. “It is unfortunate that there are some that aren’t.”
What the police department saw last weekend is unacceptable, she said, and considerably increases the chance that people will be infected.
“All of these decisions have been very, very difficult to do,” she said.
Schmaderer said police officers have performed hundreds of compliance checks. Those checks will continue “aggressively,” he said, with the decision to give citations to people in the parks and in parking lots.
Officers will use bicycles and vehicles to observe parks and parking lots, and they also will make sure that large gatherings don’t occur on the trails, he said.
Because trailhead parking lots will be closed, City Parks Director Brook Bench said, people will need to walk or bicycle onto the trails and park cars on nearby streets.
Stothert said the decision to close the parks had nothing to do with a shooting Tuesday in Benson Park that left one dead and two injured.
She said that Omaha has about 250 city parks and that there are 24 parks nearby that are not under city authority.
Capt. Wayne Hudson of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said that he expects Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour to amend the county’s health measures and that those 24 parks will be regulated in the same manner as the city’s parks.
Large picnics in the parks also posed a problem last weekend, Schmaderer said. Big gatherings compelled Omaha police last Sunday to restrict entrance to Levi Carter Park for a while, he said.
“There will be an end to this,” Stothert said, “and we will recover and move forward.”
But right now everyone needs to take precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she said.
Sarah Schram, director of the Sarpy/Cass County Health Department, said she has daily discussions with mayors and administrators in her territory. Guidelines have evolved, Schram said, because “every day we learn more and more about this” disease.
“We want people to get outside,” Schram said. “We want them to take care of their mental health.” But maintaining safety is key, she said.
World-Herald staff writers Alia Conley and Nancy Gaarder contributed to this report.