Manchester closes rec park over COVID-19 concerns

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MANCHESTER — After trying to keep the Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park open for the past several weeks, Manchester Town Manager John O'Keefe announced the park's closure Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, Gov. Phil Scott issued an executive order to "Stay home, stay safe" directing the closure of nonessential businesses and restrict unnecessary activities outside the home.

"The closure was based 95 percent on complying with the governor's order to stay home," O'Keefe said.

O'Keefe said he had been receiving calls and getting pressure to close the Rec Park for days after reports that youth at the skate park and basketball courts were not observing social distancing rules.

"We're not making decisions based on public pressure," O'Keefe said. "We've been watching it very closely."

Signs have been erected on walking paths leading into the park and the main road has been barricaded to notify people the park is closed.

O'Keefe doesn't anticipate any problems but said people would be asked to leave if found in the park in violation of the closure.

"The police department will ask them to leave," O'Keefe said. "If people continue to show up there, we'll have to cite them for trespassing."

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O'Keefe said cameras watching the skate park and basketball courts have allowed town staff to watch the activity there and one of the two park employees has been doing interventions when things got a little too crowded.

O'Keefe, earlier this week, said he had observed activities over the weekend at the park and talked with some of the kids involved.

He said he watched a group of kids playing basketball and realized that what looked like a large group of kids playing basketball was actually several groups of small numbers. He talked to one group and found they were actually three brothers living in the same house.

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He told them what they were doing was fine as long as they didn't join any other groups.

"We're making decisions based on science, medicine, public safety and public health," he said. "Are those decisions always going to be the rights ones? I hope so."

But when the governor's mandate came out Wednesday, O'Keefe said he made the decision to close the park.

"The decision was 110 percent mine," O'Keefe said. "I stand by it."

O'Keefe said town staff has been in regular contact with Select Board chairman Ivan Beattie and vice-chairman Wayne Bell, as well as deputy health officer Dr. Thomas Sterling.

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[The Select Board members] have put their faith in the town staff and Dr. Sterling," O'Keefe said.

On Wednesday, people notified that the park had been closed took the news in stride.

"Some people are delighted and some are upset I closed it," O'Keefe said. "Right now I'm not making decisions based on who's upset."

The town will move the two full-time employees from their duties at the park into other roles more appropriate for the situation.

O'Keefe said one had already been reassigned to updating the town's Facebook page with regular news and information about the coronavirus.

O'Keefe said he realizes the park is not the riskiest place in town, but he said the close contact opportunities on the basketball courts and skate park, as well as the playground equipment, were all concerns.

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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