As temperatures rose toward 60 degrees on March 25, kids who’d been cooped up in their homes for the past week or so and were now on spring break, saw a chance to blow off a little steam.
And, so, they went to local parks and playgrounds despite the statewide stay-at-home order issued by Gov. J.B. Pritzker to stop the spread of COVID-19, cases of which have skyrocketed in Illinois since March 13 to more than 2,500.
By afternoon on March 26, officials in Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside moved to either shut parks completely or make play areas off limits while keeping open spaces and paths accessible.
“The beauty of our parks is that they naturally invite social interaction, but in the current environment, that interaction can be deadly,” said North Riverside Mayor Hubert Hermanek Jr. in a community alert message to residents. “Effective immediately all village parks are closed, this includes Village Commons, Veterans and Tot Spot parks.”
At almost the same moment, Brookfield officials posted notice on the village’s website that all village of Brookfield playgrounds will be closed until further notice.
“Pathways for walking, biking will remain open,” the notice stated. “Green space will remain open. Please follow guidelines on social distancing.”
On Thursday morning, meanwhile, Riverside Fire Chief Matthew Buckley in an e-flash message that was also posted to the village’s website also urged families to maintain social distance.
“It was a great day for a walk, jog or bike ride,” Buckley said. “Everyone needed some fresh air. I went for a nice run, but kept to the social distancing as I passed people. I also understand that kids needed to get out a little, but they need to understand and parents need to reinforce that they cannot play in groups or with friends as they would normally play.”
By Thursday afternoon, Riverside Parks and Recreation had placed yellow caution tape around playground structures in Turtle, Patriots, Harrington and Blythe parks, slinging the swings around the top bar to make them inaccessible.
Signs are going up, stating the playgrounds are closed until further notice.
Brookfield Police Chief Edward Petrak and Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel both said they had instructed officers on patrol to encourage anyone gathering in parks to stay off picnic tables and play structures and urge them to comply with the statewide order to combat the spread of COVID-19.
“Our officers are going out and engaging groups in parks, with officers reminding them on social distancing and to separate themselves,” Petrak said.
Buckley in a phone interview said the local actions were also part of a larger regional effort to enforce social distancing being led by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who has ordered the lakefront, the 606 trail and the Riverwalk closed to the public after crowds flocked to those areas Wednesday to enjoy the sun.
“We just want to reaffirm the fact that we need to do better,” Buckley said. “You have to keep that distance. Parents need to do their part to separate kids.”
Ehlert Park in Brookfield was busy with kids playing on Wednesday afternoon, including about 10 boys playing basketball on the two courts there.
On one court, four boys – three brothers and a cousin were engaged in a fairly vigorous pickup game, featuring tight defense, drives to the basket and fights for rebounds.
Sharon Adams, the mother of the three brothers, wasn’t too worried about them catching the coronavirus. She was happy to be outside with three of her sons, her nephew, and an infant grandchild.
“We’ve been in the house for, what, two weeks?” Adams said. “No, I’m not concerned.”
Adams said that after all that time in the house, she and her three sons, ages 16, 14, and 11, needed to get outside.
“I got a little closed in today,” Adams said. “That’s why I came out. Came out to get a little sun, get a little air.”
Also out enjoying the weather was Erin Episcopo, who came to the park with her dog and three of her four daughters, who played on a teeter totter staying a few feet apart from each other.
“When it was cold and snowy we didn’t get out, this is probably our first day out in like a week,” Episcopo said.
Episcopo said that she was trying to observe the recommended social distancing guidelines. When her daughters wanted to pet a dog that someone else was walking, she told them to maintain the proper distance from the person walking the dog.
“If we’re going to ask a question, I’m going to have to move away and I’m going to ask it from a distance,” Episcopo said.
There were a few other young kids at the playground at Ehlert Park, including two teens kicking around a soccer ball and a few kids on bikes. On the baseball diamond a pair of teenage siblings were all by themselves playing a little softball, one pitching and the other hitting. They said that they haven’t been seeing friends since schools closed.
“You got to make your family into your friends,” said one of the two teens.
In Riverside’s Big Ball Park, David Roldan was out with his young daughter and son, ages 8 and 6, respectively, playing a three-person game of softball and kickball on a field they had all to themselves.
The kids had been anxious to get outside and away from their house. Staying at home has not been easy for his young children.
“It’s driving the kids crazy,” Roldan said. “They want to do stuff and they can’t. They want to play with their friends and they can’t.”
Bailey Hastings, 19, was also at Big Ball Park, playing long catch with her 14-year-old sister in foul territory alongside the third-base line. Both Hastings girls are softball players.
Bailey played for Riverside-Brookfield High School and this year is an assistant JV softball coach at RBHS. Her sister is a freshman at RBHS whose first high school softball season has been put on hold as schools have closed. They were just enjoying the nice weather and getting in a bit of practice.
“Nice, I forgot about the sun, especially when it’s overcast,” Bailey Hastings said.