Greenville parks might be the first to reopen when it's time

Eric Connor
Greenville News

The next two weeks will be akin to weathering out the landfall of a hurricane as health experts say that the spread of the novel coronavirus will reach its peak in the Upstate the last week of April.

That will mean businesses will continue to stay shuttered, people still out of jobs — and in the midst of it all, just when outdoor public spaces are needed most in a quarantined society, those for the most part also will be closed as spring blooms full.

Still, the question is beginning to emerge as officials say they must look to the future to be ready for it: When things do open? What will come first?

The answer, for now, appears to be parks and other places that allow for the public to exercise and maintain their physical and mental health, Greenville Mayor Knox White said.

And as for the 22-mile Swamp Rabbit Trail — which is closed within city limits but not in the county — expect the status quo for now.

People walk and ride bikes along the Swamp Rabbit Trail Saturday, Mar. 21, 2020.

In broaching the question, leaders from the Greenville area's major governmental bodies insisted that looking toward the future doesn't mean that it's time to relax social-distancing measures while the stress on hospitals reaches its peak, which according according to the University of Washington is expected to happen on April 24.

The number of deaths are expected to peak by the end of May, according to the university's virus prediction model. At this point, Upstate hospitals are expected to have enough capacity.

What to know:Coronavirus in South Carolina

On Friday, Greenville County led the number of new virus cases as 274 new cases statewide were reported by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control. The increased brings the total number of cases to 3,066, with 72 people dead.

During a weekly COVID-19 media briefing Friday sponsored by the city, Greenville County Schools Superintendent Burke Royster said that when it comes time to re-opening schools — which remains very much up in the air — he foresees a gradual reintegration.

“We went into this in a progressive manner, progressively becoming more restrictive," Royster said. "It would seem reasonable to think that we will likely come out of it in a manner where we become increasingly less restrictive.”

Over the past three weeks, the city did the same in closing the very things that have made it an attractive destination — first ordering restaurants to offer only delivery or take-out, then closing Falls Park, then a downtown curfew, followed by closing Cleveland Park and most recently, the Swamp Rabbit Trail within city limits.

Basketball courts, tennis courts and playgrounds are closed in Cleveland Park Wednesday, Mar. 25, 2020.

Each was done in response to not enough people following social-distancing guidelines.

What was last to close, White said, could generally be the first to reopen in terms of public open spaces. The city is monitoring when businesses could reopen and is working on ways to assist when the time comes, he said.

“I think there will be a succession of things, such as in the area of recreation," White said. "I think that would be the first to be reopened. We’re already thinking about what we’re going to next.”

For now, the Swamp Rabbit Trail within the city will remain closed. Congestion had become an issue.

“The Swamp Rabbit Trail, because it’s relatively narrow, presented a special issue for us, at least within the city," White said. "We really held back on that one for a long time.”

However, the same isn't true in the county, where vast portions of the state's most-populous county are rural.

Beyond city limits and through Travelers Rest and up to Marietta, the trail will remain open for the foreseeable future, Greenville County Council Chairman Butch Kirven told The Greenville News.

The council has yet to take a position on any legal restrictions, such as the city did in requiring businesses to ensure six feet of distance among customers and employees as directed by Gov. Henry McMaster, who earlier this week issued an order to stay at home or work except in special cases.

The only thing that could lead to a crackdown, Kirven said, is if people don't recognize those social-distancing requirements.

The governor has directed law enforcement to disperse gatherings of three or more people under certain circumstances, which would apply to the trail.

Kirven said it would largely be up to law enforcement to police any distancing issues along the trail or in county parks that are open save for a few restrictions on using equipment like playgrounds and basketball goals.

The chairman said he has heard calls to shut the trail and other public spaces down completely but hasn't seen the need yet.

"The next two weeks are very critical," Kirven said. "People know what to do. We’ve told them what to do. If people feel like they’re in danger going on the trail, they need to stay away from it, to tell you the truth. We all have responsibility for our own actions."

At least one thing, he said, is for certain: The economy and businesses and parks will have to open before the virus is fully contained.

“If the expectation is that nobody’s going to get sick anymore before you open things up, that’s unrealistic," Kirven said. "This virus is with us just like flu and other bad diseases, and people are going to continue to get sick even when businesses are opened back up and people can get back together.”

Follow Eric on Twitter @cericconnor