Howell parks closed to public; will open for youth sports leagues

HOWELL – The township’s parks, which are closed to the public, will be open for youth sports leagues during the current local state of emergency.

On Oct. 6, Victor Cook, the coordinator of the Howell Office of Emergency Management, said all municipal parks will be closed until further notice.

“As part of our local declared state of emergency, the township is closing all of the township parks effective immediately.

“This (action) is due to the recent uptick in (coronavirus) cases combined with the large number of complaints being received that the parks are filled to capacity, with users not social distancing and with most individuals not adhering to (Gov. Phil Murphy’s) Executive Order No. 107 and not wearing masks.

“Any individual not adhering to this (park) closing (order) could face a fine under the local state of emergency and Executive Order No. 107,” Cook said.

Mayor Theresa Berger posted a statement on social media following Cook’s announcement.

She wrote, “There has been a rise in the number of (coronavirus) cases in neighboring towns. Due to the uptick in cases and the lack of social distancing in the parks, the township manager and the OEM made a decision to close the parks.

“I completely agree with temporarily closing our parks, but there needs to be an exception for organized sports that are abiding by the Department of Health’s health and safety protocols,” Berger wrote.

That exception was made on Oct. 7 when Township Manager Brian Geoghegan’s office released a statement in which he was quoted as saying, “We have received a great deal of feedback over the past day relating to the closure of parks in Howell, some positive, some negative. Many (people) took issue with the abrupt nature of the closing and its impact on youth sports leagues in Howell.

“The closure order was issued as a result of increased complaints relating to the use of our parks and the failure of people to follow protocols relating to social distancing and mask wearing.

“The closure order was worded succinctly so there was no room for interpretation. The township needed a temporary hard stop on park usage to ensure the safety of everyone.

“As soon as the closure order was issued, we began contacting, and were contacted by, the directors of our youth sports leagues to discuss the situation. Most of our organized sports leagues have a plan in place relating to COVID-19.

“We have reviewed (those plans) again in light of recent experience to see if they need to be updated or modified. I am happy to say our sports leagues are an example to us all. They have observed proper protocols and have taken responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others.

“As a result, we will be allowing them to use our parks again. We expect them to return to the fields today (Oct.7). We continue to work on a plan to phase in usage over the next several days, but at this point we are keeping playground and other ‘high-touch areas closed,” Geoghegan said.

“Additionally, while our parks are closed, we will be sanitizing them. Our first priority is to
sanitize the youth sports fields. To assist with our sanitization efforts, Lakewood has agreed to mobilize some of its own Department of Public Works, so (people) will see Lakewood trucks in some of our parks.

“Once our parks are sanitized, we anticipate reopening them to passive recreation; this should occur over the next several days,” he said.

“Finally, a number of residents have asked why we cannot restrict the use of our parks to township residents. The answer is simple – it is not legal.

“There have been instances where other towns have tried to restrict the use of their parks to their own residents.

“They were sued not only for unlawful discrimination, but also for violating the terms of New Jersey Green Acres grants, which require parks to be open to all,” Geoghegan said.

According to officials, there were more than 12,450 coronavirus cases reported in Monmouth County and more than 14,550 coronavirus cases reported in Ocean County as of the date of the local state of emergency.

As of the same date, there were 1,052 deaths attributed to the disease reported in Ocean County and 868 deaths attributed to the disease reported in Monmouth County.