Why Are Chicago’s Playgrounds Still Closed?

Evanston and Oak Park have reopened playgrounds, with safety guidelines. Could Chicago do something similar?

Playground winter closed
The entrance to the playground at Winnemac Park, where listener Ashley Abbott's two daughters like to play, has been chained shut since March 2020. Maggie Sivit / WBEZ
Playground winter closed
The entrance to the playground at Winnemac Park, where listener Ashley Abbott's two daughters like to play, has been chained shut since March 2020. Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Why Are Chicago’s Playgrounds Still Closed?

Evanston and Oak Park have reopened playgrounds, with safety guidelines. Could Chicago do something similar?

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Editor’s note: On Tuesday, February 23, the Chicago Park District announced it was reopening its playgrounds along with play areas and previously closed parts of the lakefront and indoor pools.

Officials cited improved COVID “metrics” for the change and urged park visitors to “continue to be diligent with safety protocols.” Park officials did not give a detailed timeline for when the city’s hundreds of playgrounds would all be reopened, but said it would happen over “upcoming weeks.”

Like park officials in Oak Park, Chicago Park District authorities said they will be installing safety signage at the playgrounds reminding visitors to wear masks, keep social distance and wash their hands.

Question asker Ashley Abbott, who has two young girls, was thrilled to hear the news.

“This was welcome timing as the city was thawing out,” she said. “I just know this is going to bring some needed joy and outdoor time to so many families. I feel confident they will use these spaces responsibly.”

Jeremy Hornik, who asked about playground closures during the summer, predicted that his seven-year-old son will be excited to finally re-enter the “great, huge crazy” playground at Indian Boundary Park.

“He has lived with it and even learned to deal with [the closure],” Hornik said. “But every time we’d go for a walk in the park he’d say ‘when coronavirus is over can I go back to the playground?’ ”

Hornik is pleased with the move by the city, and cautiously optimistic that it portends better times ahead.

“I love the fact that we are starting to turn corners and that we are opening things up again as the level of risk is going down,” he said. “I still want to be cautious because I know we are still not out of the woods, especially with the new strains coming through. But it’s good to know that public health officials feel that, after bars and restaurants, can come playgrounds and I am very glad they are reopening.”

Like a lot of Chicago kids, Ashley Abbott’s two daughters have been cooped up at home doing e-learning since last March.

So, even on a Chicago winter day, Ashley would love to be able to take her girls for a romp in their local playground at Winnemac Park on the city’s North Side.

“But it’s actually chained up,” Ashley said with frustration. And those chains have been there for months.

Last June Ashley read our story answering a question about why Chicago keeps its playgrounds closed while many other cities and nearby suburbs have reopened them. At the time, she could sort of understand the city’s rationales. Health Commissioner Alison Arwady said kids aren’t able to control themselves and keep six feet away from each other. Park District CEO Mike Kelly further explained that it was too hard for his department to keep all 600-plus playgrounds clean.

But Ashley points out that many things have changed since last summer. In January, the city resumed indoor classes in parks (with new guidelines) and is currently planning to bring kids back to school in person. We’ve also learned much more about the relative safety of outdoor activities and the rarity of transmission of COVID-19 through surfaces.

Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Stefan Baral points out that, out of more than 100,000 papers published on COVID-19, none has identified playgrounds as a significant source of transmission. In fact the one that specifically studied the issue found that they weren’t a source, he said. Baral advocated for the opening of playgrounds across the nation last September in the Baltimore Sun, saying that their closures will come with “unlikely benefits in disease prevention but with very real harm to communities.” Other infectious disease experts like Harvard Medical School physician Abraar Karan have also argued that with precautions, playgrounds can be safe and a good way for kids to get outside.

Ashley agrees. “Most folks in the city don’t have access to lots in their yards or within walking distance other than these playgrounds,” she said. And she doesn’t understand why they’re still closed when she’s “watching crowded bars and people with no masks dining indoors.”

At Ashley’s request Curious City went back to Chicago officials to see why, as Chicago moved into Phase 4 and other restrictions were eased up, playgrounds remained closed.

Chicago Park District officials told Curious City playgrounds are still closed at the recommendation of “city and state health officials.” But this can be confusing because the city does recommend keeping playgrounds closed while the state does not.

Officials at the Chicago Department of Health referred Curious City to Chicago’s Joint Information Center, which sent Curious City an email that said: “Our guidance on playgrounds remains the same for now because, unlike schools, restaurants and other settings, there are no controls in place to ensure COVID precautions are being taken that will limit the potential spread of the virus. We continue to monitor the data daily and will update when there is a change.”

But the Illinois Department of Public Health offers different guidance on playgrounds and encourages outdoor recreation with safety measures. Spokesperson Melaney Arnold notes, “Outdoor recreation has always been encouraged as long as it can be done safely with masking and social distancing. Under Phase 4, all outdoor recreation is allowed; however, some local government units may have more stringent requirements.”

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends visiting parks while employing safety measures like social distancing, but urges people to “carefully consider use of playgrounds, and help children follow guidelines,” when they do.

Playground swing winter
David J. Phillip / AP
Some Chicago Suburbs Keep Playgrounds Open

While Chicago has decided to keep its playgrounds closed, changes were made months ago in nearby suburbs like Oak Park and Evanston, where playgrounds are open with warnings or instructions posted on signs.

Oak Park posts signs that warn, “This playground is open but not sanitized; use cautiously at your own risk.” The phrase “at your own risk” is underlined and bolded to ensure people notice. The signs offer further safety measures for visitors, including “Caregivers are responsible for supervising children and ensuring guidelines are followed.”

When asked why they reopened playgrounds after closing them last year, Oak Park officials said it was straightforward.

“We are simply following state guidelines,” Diane Stanke, Oak Park’s director of marketing and customer service, said. “We closed them when Governor Pritzker issued the shelter- in -place order back in March 2020. We reopened them, again, through an order issued by Governor Pritzker when we entered into the Phase 4 stage of the Restore Illinois Plan, and that was back in June 2020.”

Stanke said that Oak Park communicated these warnings in many different ways, “other than just banners at our playgrounds. We do electronic newsletters, our website, social media, et cetera — a lot of different ways to communicate to the public to explain what we were doing at each particular stage of the pandemic.”

When Curious City emailed CDPH officials to ask why Chicago couldn’t open playgrounds with similar guidance for users, officials did not respond.

Ashley Abbott notes that many people have found a way around the issue by simply breaking through the chains or ignoring signs and letting their kids play on the playground equipment anyway. But she said she believes some Chicagoans may feel a lot safer breaking the rules than others.

“It is part of a larger equity conversation in our city,” she said. “A lot of families wouldn’t feel safe doing that — ignoring the guidelines or just physically removing the barriers and I think that needs to be considered.”

Chicago Park District spokesperson Michele Lemons said her department works with the police to enforce the closures, but she did not have any data on if or when anyone has ever been cited for taking down the signs or breaking through the chains.

Still, Ashley said she was disappointed by these responses from Chicago officials on why they have decided to keep playgrounds closed when many other large urban areas have opened them.

“These taxpayer-funded vital resources have been summarily closed for almost a year and there seems to be no work going into a plan or timeline to reopen them,” she wrote in an email. “I question the current balance of prioritizing revenue generating businesses over truly supporting the community’s well-being and providing public services.”

Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. You can follow her @MonicaEng.

Natalie Dalea is Curious City’s multimedia intern. You can follow her @nmdalea.