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More than 800 Toronto playgrounds are currently off-limits due to COVID-19. How dangerous will they be in Stage 3?
July 23, 2020
Francine Kopun

Just after noon on a mild summer day, the popular Jamie Bell Adventure Playground in High Park lies deserted.

The swings hang motionless, the castles and slides abandoned, the nearby picnic tables populated by a plastic fork and a pop can.

The yellow caution tape meant to discourage people from using the equipment has fallen to the ground in places, mingling with last year’s leaves.

Residents say there are people who do break the law and use the playground, but on this July afternoon, it seems the provincial regulations that closed playgrounds at the beginning of the COVID-19 epidemic are being obeyed.

“It’s disappointing that the playgrounds aren’t open, but I also want to keep my child safe,” said Mary-Beth Liberatore, cycling nearby with her eight-year-old daughter.

Don Sage, visiting from the Bathurst and St. Clair area with his two children ages five and three, said he began keeping them away from playgrounds even before the order closing them -- his wife is a front-line worker.

“It feels safer,” said Sage, while admitting it’s hard on the kids.

“We live in an apartment so we’re really paying the price.”

It’s too soon to start counting down the days to playgrounds reopening in Toronto -- on July 17, 24 of the 34 public health districts in the province moved into Stage 3 of reopening, which means playgrounds can once again be put into use, but Toronto was not among them. Nor will Toronto be among the seven more regions that will enter Stage 3 on July 25, including York and Durham.

Only Toronto, Peel Region and Windsor-Essex will remain in Stage 2 past Friday.

The city estimates that when Toronto is allowed to enter Stage 3 it will take two to three days to remove caution tape and signage at its more than 800 playgrounds, install physical distancing signage where required and undertake general cleanup.

Toronto Public Health (TPH) has also recommended that where possible, the parks department move benches to ensure they are at least two metres apart and to remove picnic tables from playground areas to discourage people from congregating.

TPH is asking parents to prepare too, by teaching their children proper hand-washing techniques; by cautioning them to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and by telling them to cover a cough. Parents are being urged to stay home if they or their children are sick, and to ensure their children wash their hands before and after they use playground equipment.

TPH is also recommending that when playgrounds open again, parents bring their own hand sanitizer, wipes, bottled water and other personal items and wear a mask or face covering when it is difficult to maintain physical distancing. (Children under the age of two should not wear masks.)

It’s recommending that if a park is very busy, parents should find another park or return another time.

The thinking around the likelihood of becoming infected with COVID-19 after touching a contaminated surface has changed since the beginning of the epidemic, but caution is still advised.

“We know now that the virus is more easily spread in indoor rather than outdoor environments,” according to Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate medical officer of health.

Of all the cases investigated by TPH, 58 per cent of people acquired their infection from close contact with someone who had COVID-19. The number of cases related to contaminated surfaces -- called fomite transmission -- is unknown.

“Sometimes it can be difficult to determine exactly where someone acquired COVID-19 since the infection could have been acquired 14 days before the symptoms started,” Dubey said.

“We also know that COVID-19 is predominantly spread from the respiratory droplets through close contact with a contagious person. The spread through fomites is not considered a primary method through which COVID-19 can spread.”

The UV light in ordinary, everyday sunshine may also play an important role in deactivating surfaces contaminated by the virus, according to Dubey.

On Wednesday, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, echoed that sentiment at a press conference to update the public on COVID-19.

“When it comes to surfaces, they are less of a concern than they might have been when we didn’t know as much about the virus,” she said.

Nonetheless, playgrounds remain closed, and Mayor John Tory said Wednesday they are unlikely to reopen until Toronto enters Stage 3.

The danger isn’t just that children could become infected by touching infected surfaces, but also that they could infect each other while playing, Dubey said.

The city doesn’t know how many tickets have been issued for unlawful use of playground equipment -- it doesn’t keep data at that level. It fielded more than 13,000 complaints regarding unlawful use of city amenities between April 1 and July 21. That captures all amenities, including basketball courts, sports fields, barbecues and bonfires, among others, and doesn’t properly reflect how many scofflaws are using playground equipment. In all, 740 tickets have been issued to people illegally using city amenities, and more than 25,000 warnings issued. The fine is $750.

Playgrounds have gone through many different evolutions over the years, according to Alex Mut, who manages construction capital projects for the city’s parks, forestry and recreation division.

Recently, for example, concerns over playground safety have given rise to concerns that playgrounds were no longer offering enough challenge or play value.

He says it’s too early to say whether something as profound as a pandemic will change the way playgrounds are designed.

“Will there be a possibility that they will design fountains with hand-washing stations as part of them? Possibly. To be honest, I don’t know at this point. I think it’s a big question. It’s going to be an interesting conversation moving forward,” said Mut.

“I would just say I think COVID-19 is going to influence the way we do a lot of things and certainly design is one thing that we do that may be influenced. To what extent it will influence design is a work in progress.”