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Kansas City Might Close Some Streets For People To Walk And Run Outside Safely In Pandemic

032420_Walkers and runners at Loose Park by Laura Spencer.jpg
Laura Spencer / KCUR 89.3
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Walkers and runners along the path at Jacob L. Loose park in March. The park has been a popular spot during Kansas City's stay-at-home orders, but some people say the narrow path doesn't allow for proper social distancing.

As spring arrives in the metro, Kansas City officials consider closing some streets to give residents more places to get outside while maintaining proper social distance.

The Kansas City area is closing in on a month of being under a metro-wide stay-at home order, and health experts suggest an extension is coming soon.

In the meantime, a lot of people have been getting a needed escape from being indoors by heading to area parks and trails.

But as the weather gets warmer, it’s getting increasingly harder to maintain the recommended 6-foot separation from other people — especially on narrow sidewalks and running paths.

Melinda Frenzen said her family avoids Jacob L. Loose Park on warm, busy weekends, despite living within walking distance.

“I think there is some distancing and you see that more on the less busy times, but on the weekends definitely there is very little social distancing,” Frenzen said.

As the metro enters spring, the Kansas City Council is discussing measures to help alleviate crowding in parks and on busy running paths.

Possible street closures

Some other cities around the U.S. have closed parks in anticipation of nicer weather to avoid overcrowding. Kansas City Councilman Eric Bunch said he wants people to continue going outdoors.

He said some other cities, like Denver and Oakland, have closed off streets to cars in order to give people more space to walk and run.

“Because they see that there is a desperate need for getting people outside, but doing so at a safe physical distance,” Bunch said.

Bunch is behind a resolution to consider some street and lane closures in Kansas City. The measure would also reprogram pedestrian signals to automatically change along busy sidewalks and trails to reduce people touching buttons.

But on Wednesday, the city council's transportation, infrastructure and operations committee balked at some of the initial suggestions from the public works department, including closing sections of Parvin Road in the Northland, Walnut Street downtown, and Linwood and Meyer Boulevards.

Some council members, including Bunch’s counterpart in the Fourth District Katheryn Shields, said they haven’t noticed any issues with crowded parks.

“I’m out every day walking too, and I don’t seem to see what you’re seeing. I walk in Mill Creek Park, or I walk in the Plaza, the Trolley Trail… I don’t have any problem keeping within six feet,” Shields said.

Shields opposed the closures of any streets, except block-by block closures within certain neighborhoods.

Councilwoman Melissa Robinson, who represents the Third District, said some parks in her district are underutilized and that different parts of the city may have different needs.

The committee agreed to limit potential street closures to non-arterial roads and that any plan for road closures would come back up for council approval.

The public works department also suggested they could expedite “block party” requests, so neighborhoods can request barricades to temporarily close neighborhood streets to thru traffic.

Short of blocking streets, Bunch said the city could implement lane closures to widen sidewalk space. In the case of Loose Park, he said they could set up cones to widen the perimeter of the park.

Councilwoman Andrea Bough, who is co-sponsoring Bunch’s resolution, told KCUR they’ll have to consult with police to make sure changes don’t get in the way of first responders or otherwise burden police. She said its about finding the right balance between safety and convenience.

“I think that’s what we’re trying to do is look at the need of getting out of our houses in a safe manner… and how we maintain some order in the use of those streets for pedestrian activity,” Bough said.

No end in sight for social distancing

Some health experts say that the need for social distancing will likely remain even after cities and states lift stay-at-home orders.

Walking the path at Loose Park on Tuesday, Ward Holmquist said now is the time for the city to start making creative, thoughtful decisions to prevent re-infection in the future.

“At this point, it’s obvious that we have to keep our distance, whether or not it’s to Memorial Day, whether it’s to the middle of the summer,” Holmquist said.

Holmquist said different neighborhoods in Kansas City may require different tools, but he’s supportive of the city considering new ways to open up outdoor space.

If the full council approves the resolution Thursday, the public works department will seek public input and bring a plan to the council next week.

Lisa Rodriguez is the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. She also covers Kansas City, Missouri, city hall. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig.

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