Johnson County parks seeing heavy visitor traffic, officials encouraging physical distancing

As warmer weather draws heavier traffic to Johnson County parks, public health officials are encouraging people to stay six feet apart.

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Ezazul Haque

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Sarah Watson, Managing Editor

Although Tuesday’s skies remained gray and rainy, Johnson County parks officials are encouraging residents to remain at six feet apart while outdoors as temperatures warm into the summer and the parks experience heavy foot traffic.

Like much of Iowa, parks, trails, and recreation areas remain open in Johnson County, and saw an influx of visitors as the weather warmed this weekend. Just campgrounds and playground equipment remain off limits in the county.

Based on a traffic counter, Johnson County Conservation Program Manager Brad Freidhof said Johnson County’s Kent State Park saw about 1,200 visitors on Saturday and about 1,400 on Sunday.

“Those number(s) may appear high, but Kent Park is 1,052 acres in size so the density of people is low,” Freidhof wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan.

To date, Johnson County has had 518 positive coronavirus cases, and six deaths. Statewide on Tuesday, Iowa recorded its highest daily death toll from the coronavirus. The Iowa Department of Public Health reported 19 deaths, none of which were in Johnson County.

County public health officials maintained that physical distancing would curtail future spread of the virus. But, Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis said going outside for exercise remained important to residents’ physical and mental health as long as precautions are taken: residents should stay home if they’re feeling sick, practice proper hygiene, and continue to stay six feet apart when outdoors.

“The emotional toll that social isolation can bring is also dangerous,” said Johnson County Community Health Manager Sam Jarvis. “It is important to continue to support one another and to maintain healthy social lives, just from six feet apart. We’d prefer a call or video chat from home, but if you are around others, you can still say hello and carry on a conversation from six feet apart. And even though we are asking people to not shake hands, you can still wave.”

Jarvis said the department is still seeing about 6-10 new cases a day.

“By no means are we seeing a downturn at all, but certainly not any dramatic increases,” Jarvis said.

For park visitors who aren’t following social distancing guidelines, the conservation department isn’t issuing citations, Friedhof said, but the staffers working in the parks will ask large groups of people to disperse.

He said that the county would consider closing parks if COVID-19 cases worsened, and would base the decision in recommendations from state public health officials.

“At this time we have no indication that we will do that (close parks),” Friedhof said, adding that he believed people in parks were continuing to social distance in Johnson County parks or were understanding when asked to disperse.

Over the weekend, the Iowa City Police Department’s call log registered about 20 calls of COVID-19-related complaints. Some were related to people conducting door-to-door sales, while others were related to private or public large gatherings.

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