Under resident pressure, Beverly Hills reopens park structures

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published December 4, 2020


For two weeks in November, during a period when metro Detroit saw both 60 degree temperatures and its first snowfall of the season, residents in Beverly Hills were somewhat limited in how they could enjoy the outdoors. 

And boy, did those residents have something to say about it.

It was during the Village Council’s Nov. 17 meeting that the council voted to direct administrators to close off access to playground equipment in Beverly Park, along with the pavilion, the adult exercise equipment, the tennis courts and the park’s sled hill.

The motivation was simple: people had been spotted congregating in those areas, and the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus was deemed high.

“In April, the first time we closed off the playground, that was at the direction of the county. That’s not being done this time, but I think there’s some merit to that,” explained Village Manager Chris Wilson of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency Stay at Home order that prohibited use of playgrounds, among other things, from late March until late May.

“They’re recommending that people get outside and exercise, but then there’s also this aspect of limiting the number of persons you come into contact with,” he added.

The council discussed options like increased signage in the park to remind visitors to keep 6 feet apart and to keep masks on while around other people. 

“I don’t agree with the mask requirement, because people stay pretty far away from each other on the street. At least in this community,” said Council member John Mooney.

Village Council President John George pointed out what he said was an inherent contradiction in Mooney’s argument against masks but for closing the parks, but nonetheless, voted with the rest of the council to unanimously order the structures closed until Dec. 8, the end of the Department of Health and Human Services’ most recent restrictions. The park in general remained open.

When the council met again on Dec. 1, residents attended virtually to express their upset at the closures. Wilson acknowledged early on during his remarks that the village offices received some calls, but he said most people understood that the village was trying to limit access to areas where people might gather in groups.

“I do know a lot of our residents are concerned about these closures, particularly the sled hill,” said newly elected Council member Tracy Kecskemeti during her first meeting in the seat.

Colleen Zammit was one such resident, who said she had never attended a virtual meeting until that day, but felt compelled because she thought the playground closure was an overreach.

“I don’t think that it really fit with the order of the Department of Health and Human Services,” Zammit said. “So I just want to throw my two cents in and say, please, I urge you to go ahead and open these areas back up. Get our kids back outside.”

The MDHHS’s “Pause to Save Lives” order, in place until Dec. 8, did permit the use of parks and outdoor recreation, as well as outdoor gatherings of 25 people or less.

Resident Matt Goodrich also said that he felt the MDHHS order was taken out of context and that the council shouldn’t have closed the park amenities.

After all, no other local parks followed suit.  

“Today, I visited 10 total parks in our surrounding area, nine of which were city parks and one of which was an Oakland County park,” Goodrich told the council during their Dec. 1 meeting. “All of them had their play structures open today.”

Kecskemeti said she spoke to a representative with the Oakland County Health Division and was advised that, to the county’s knowledge, no other municipalities had closed off playgrounds or park structures other than public bathrooms. Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein confirmed that the city’s sledding hill in Civic Center Park has not closed.

Birmingham Communications Director Marianne Gamboa said that, as of now, all of the city’s outdoor park amenities remain open. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.

“This could change any day, but we’re striving to provide the best outdoor experience available to the Birmingham community,” Gamboa said.

In the Oakland County Parks system, Executive Director Dan Stencil confirmed that no outdoor areas or play structures have been closed. The only thing shut down for the fall season due to the pandemic are the indoor nature center exhibits in Independence Oaks Park in Clarkston and Red Oaks Park in Madison Heights. Even there, the restrooms remain open for use.

“Other than that, we’re just waiting for winter conditions, which includes snow,” he added.

The parks system offers a number of activities during the winter, including groomed trails for hiking and cross-country skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing and continued access to dog parks.  The cross-country skiing is a perennial favorite, Stencil said, and could be even more popular this year with limited recreation offerings for residents to take advantage of indoors.

During March and April of 2020, attendance at Oakland County Parks increased to peak summer levels, with much of that made up of first-time visitors. 

Stencil attributes the spike in visitors to the extended lockdown Michigan experienced in the spring. Without many places open besides essential retail businesses, parks served as a way to stave off cabin fever.

The Mayo Clinic argues that choosing outdoor activities is doubly effective as a boredom buster, since you’re not only off the couch, you’re also reaping benefits like vitamin D from the sunlight and circulating air to lower the risk of infection.

“When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing (respiratory) droplets,” reads an article on the clinic’s website. “So you’re less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19.”

Beverly Hills resident Chester Dawson said he believes outdoor activity does benefit mental and physical wellbeing. But during the council’s meeting, he said he thought the structures in Beverly Park should be reopened largely because of the way the closure was being managed.

“I think it’s crazy. My own children were chased off by police. I called the Police Department to lodge a complaint. I think it’s absolutely nuts to try and criminalize our children’s ability to play outside,” Dawson said.

Beverly Hills Public Safety Director Richard Torongeau did not respond to a request for comment before press time.

With those comments in mind, the council discussed reopening the structures and placing signage and possibly hand sanitizing stations in high-traffic areas, reminding visitors to practice social distancing, wear face coverings and observe good hand hygiene. 

Council member Lee Peddie acknowledged that residents were unhappy with the original move and reminded the meeting audience that the pandemic is “a first” for all of us, and we’re “learning as we go.”

The council then voted to reopen the structures early, before the Dec. 8 MDHHS order end date. All agreed with the exception of Council member Rock Abboud, who said he wasn’t comfortable.

“Although I’m still not for opening things up, I said (at our last meeting), ‘Is it possible to have someone at the gate — because the park is enclosed all the way around — to at least take a temperature check?’” Abboud said. “The park only has so many hours that it can be open anyway.”