Openings and closings

Today, the Jersey City municipal government is reopening local parks. Not all of them, but enough of them to put a small smile of relief on my face. Berry Lane Park on Garfield Avenue is the size of several city blocks. It shouldn’t be too difficult for us to practice social distancing there. The sun is supposed to come out tomorrow. Should we feel up to it, we’ll take our bicycles to Lafayette, sit on a bench, or even sprawl out in the grass.

I’ve felt for a long time that the closure of parks — Liberty State Park in particular — was ill-considered. With gyms shuttered and parks off limits, joggers and cyclists were forced to crowd on to residential streets. Others gave up on exercise, which can’t be a good thing for their immune systems. We’re fighting this virus collectively, which means we need as many of our neighbors to be healthy as they can be. Then again, I don’t have any science to back up any of my suspicions, and in the middle of a pandemic, I’m reluctant to get loud in support of any risky activity. State and municipal governments chose to shutter the parks for health reasons. They must have had models that suggested that keeping them open would cause more people to get sick. Didn’t they?

Maybe they didn’t. Maybe they’re just chucking darts at a board, blindfolded by circumstances, and hoping to get as close to the target as they can. Honestly, I’d understand that approach. Months since the breakout, we still don’t know exactly what we’re up against. We’re going to try things, and some of the things we try are going to turn out to have been bad ideas. What I wish, though, is that governments would provide rationales they’re using for the prohibitions they’re putting in place, tell us what’s working and what isn’t, and admit it when initial steps turn out to have been taken in unproductive directions.

For instance, we never learned exactly why Jersey City closed municipal parks in the first place. We were told that this was done to make it harder for people to congregate, and pass around the virus, but nothing was ever done about the spike in pedestrians and runners (and sometimes cyclists, too) on sidewalks. A similar thing happened on the waterfront. The closure of Owen Grundy Pier squeezed people on to nearby boardwalks. It shouldn’t have taken weeks for the municipal government to recognize the foot-traffic dynamic their restrictions created. I have to believe that they were aware of the consequences of a park shutdown, but chose to keep it in place anyway.

Today, some of those restrictions have been loosened. Something has changed, but the city hasn’t been forthcoming about what that might be. Perhaps we’ve refined our transmission model, and we’re less concerned about catching the coronavirus in parks than we once were. Maybe our municipal leaders believe — as some officials in other parts of the country seem to — that we’re past the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, and it’s mathematically acceptable to allow people to come into passing contact with each others’ respiration. Parks may be safer for reasons that have nothing directly to do with pathogens: thirty per cent of the Jersey City police force, we’ve learned from the mayor, were down with coronavirus-related sickness in mid-April.

Or maybe it’s arbitrary. Maybe they simply feel it’s time to get back to business, and they’re beginning with the parks, because that’s the easiest step to take. Elsewhere in the country, governors are setting re-opening dates, behaving as if the virus has a sense of time and will stand down, cooperatively, the moment the calendar turns to May. Even if we give them the benefit of the doubt, it’s still incumbent upon them to explain the science behind the decisions they’re making. Right now, they’re still speaking in generalities — and that’s not going to restore public trust in institutions that are wobbling.