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Councilors affirm park closure, encourage use of other spaces for outdoor exercise

The Town Council has affirmed its decision to keep Fort Williams Park closed until May 1, 2020, encouraging residents to instead seek outdoor exercise at one of the many other open spaces throughout town.

Councilors on April 8 voted down a proposal to allow non-vehicular traffic into the park, which would have amended their April 1 decision to close Fort Williams to the public to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 disease.

The motion to amend came from Councilor Penny Jordan, the lone supporter in the 6-1 vote. "I feel like we've kind of been squeezing a balloon," Jordan said, forcing neighbors of the park to find alternate areas for outdoor exercise – options that are getting fewer by the day.

In the last few weeks many outdoor spaces have closed to the public to prevent the spread of coronavirus. State parks and beaches have been closed in southern Maine since March 27; Cape Elizabeth school outdoor facilities have been closed since April 2; and neighboring communities have either closed public spaces or asked people to limit their use.

Opening Fort Williams Park to non-vehicular traffic would give the limited number of neighborhood residents a large enough area to keep a safe social distance, Jordan said. She suggested a parking ban on nearby streets to discourage non-neighborhood use.

Councilors said they understood the frustration and thanked Jordan for the proposal, but also cited the reasons that led them to pass the emergency order the week before.

Jamie Garvin, one councilor, said state and federal guidelines for social distancing and personal protective gear are even more stringent than they were a week ago. "It stinks that (the park) is closed ... and I wish it was different," said Garvin, adding that he also misses his regular walks at Fort Williams. The park, however, attracts a lot of people and he said he'd rather be accused of being too cautious than risk a visitor contracting COVID-19. "Even if the risk is fairly minimal, there's still a level of risk that I'm not willing to accept," Garvin said.

Valerie Deveraux, another councilor, added that if the council's action spares even one person from the disease, it's worth the hardship. "We have an opportunity here and I think we also have a responsibility to look out for the health, safety and welfare of not only residents but visitors to our town."

Alternative areas

Garvin said he's been walking around his own Oakhurst Road neighborhood for outdoor exercise. Other councilors said they'd observed use of lesser-known open spaces, and encouraged residents to do the same. "At Gull Crest and the Poor Farm, where I happened to be walking this weekend, I ran in to a total of seven people in an hour and half" said Council Chair Valerie Adams. "There was lots of space, so I think one of the issues may just be that people aren't aware of how much open space we have or what their alternatives might be."

Normally at this time the Conservation Committee closes Cape Elizabeth greenbelt trails to allow them to dry out after the spring melt. This year, however, the trails are in good shape, so the committee instead has asked residents to refrain from walking around wet areas, which widens the trail. "If you end up on a spot that's wet, just walk through," said Town Planner Maureen O'Meara.

There are 19.5 miles of trails in the Cape Elizabeth greenbelt. A link to a map and trail descriptions is on our COVID-19 resource page. Residents are reminded to choose spaces that allow for social distancing.

In a related matter, School Superintendent Donna Wolfrom has announced that in accordance with Department of Education recommendations, Cape Elizabeth schools will continue distance learning through the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year