Parks have played an important role for people seeking respite from the toll of social isolation during the pandemic, and according to new research from Drexel University, they have done so without increasing the spread of COVID-19. The study looked at how people used 22 parks in Philadelphia and New York at the height of the pandemic and found no strong correlation between park use and the number of confirmed cases in surrounding neighborhoods.
Posted in Extreme event log, Drexel’s study “Use of Urban Parks During the COVID-19 Pandemic” surveyed park visitors over a three-month period from May to July 2020 in small and medium-sized parks in New York City and Philadelphia. And he compared park use figures to COVID-19 transmission rates in areas directly surrounding the parks.
“Despite early speculation that parks could become gathering points for large groups of people and contribute to the transmission of COVID-19, our research did not find a strong correlation between cases of COVID-19 in neighborhoods close to parks and the number of people using them ”. said Franco Montalto, PhD, professor at the Drexel College of Engineering who led the research team.
During the first months of the pandemic last spring, public health guidelines recommended avoiding gathering in large groups outdoors. As a result, many municipalities have closed public playgrounds with high touch areas, like swings and slide boards, out of caution. But most public parks remained open and, according to the study, those in Philadelphia and New York City continued to be used throughout the pandemic.
The researchers selected 22 small city parks, 15 in Philadelphia and seven in New York City, located in or near neighborhoods representing varying levels of relative density and population vulnerability, according to census data and the Social Vulnerability Index. CDC – a tool that uses census data to identify communities that may need support during natural disasters and crisis situations. This allowed the team to take these factors into account when examining the possibility of a link between park use and transmission of COVID-19.
What he found was that regardless of the city or the social vulnerability of adjacent neighborhoods, in more densely populated areas, parks tended to be used more. But this increased use does not equate to higher transmission of COVID-19 – which was more closely associated with neighborhood vulnerability, according to the study.
“Although further epidemiological study is needed, this research has provided no evidence that use of the park has contributed to the spread of COVID-19,” they wrote. “The number of visitors to the park has increased with the density in Philadelphia, as has the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Citizen scientists assigned to each park observed how and how they were used and whether or not visitors engaged in activities deemed “high risk” for transmitting COVID-19, such as playing contact sports, do not wear a mask, or cough without covering yourself.
Overall, only a small percentage of park users – 22.7% in Philadelphia and 1.2% in New York City – have never worn a mask, according to the study. The majority of park users that were observed did not engage in high-risk behaviors – only 0.7% in Philadelphia and 0.9% in New York City were observed coughing or spitting frequently without covering your mouth. And only 1.6% and 12.9% of people were seen participating in contact sports frequently in Philadelphia and New York, respectively.
“While the municipalities that closed parks during the pandemic likely did so out of caution, our work shows no evidence to support closing parks during the pandemic,” Montalto said. “The fact that people continue to visit the parks during lockdowns and the early stages of the pandemic underscores the obvious value of the parks as respite for urban residents during the early stages of the pandemic.
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation. Besides Montalto, Drexel College of Engineering researchers Bita Alizadehtazi, Korin Tangtrakul, Sloane Woerdeman, Anna Gussenhoven and Nariman Mostafavi contributed to this study.
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