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Boston parks open for spring amid coronavirus—just keep your distance, please

The pandemic has led to some restrictions on park activities and it’s now pushed back the timeline of a master plan for Boston Common

A lone woman in the distance exercising amid an otherwise empty park. Boston Globe via Getty Images

Boston’s parks are sure to get a workout during the first full month of spring, the novel coronavirus pandemic not withstanding.

If anything, the outbreak and its aftershocks have highlighted how important the city’s parks are to its residents and visitors. While private businesses temporarily close and other civic institutions pull back from public use—think libraries and schools—parks remain open and in relatively heavy use heading into April.

Still, the virus has disrupted the normal ebb and flow of Boston’s greenswards—for good reason—and has impacted a master plan for what is not only the oldest public park in the city but in America, one that about 40,000 people passed through on any given day prior to the pandemic.

“I think people are seeing parks in a new light,” said Liz Vizza, executive director of the Friends of the Public Garden, the advocacy nonprofit that partners with the city on the maintenance of Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. “They’re trying to cope and they’re turning to this civic infrastructure to be alone together. [The pandemic] has really shone a light on the power of parks in our realm.”

Vizza and her group, though, advocate for people enjoying those large parks responsibly amid the coronavirus. That means avoiding crowds and crowding, and maintaining a distance from others of at least 6 feet. Vizza said that’s easier in the Common and the Public Garden—which are 50 acres and 24 acres, respectively—than along the much narrower 32-acre Comm. Ave. Mall.

“The mall is probably the most complicated of our parks to be distant in,” she said last week from her home in Jamaica Plain. “I would hope that people are actually not there if there’s too many people there.”

The city itself has decided that there just might be too many people. On April 5, the Department of Parks and Recreation issued new guidelines to stem the spread of the coronavirus, including closing all athletic and recreational equipment and areas within parks until further notice (the department had earlier suspended all group sports activities on park fields and courts).

The city had already closed its golf courses and playgrounds. (Other area municipalities, including Somerville and Cambridge, have also shuttered playgrounds.)

What’s more, the virus has upended the timeline for the Boston Common Master Plan, a blueprint for beefing up the park ahead of its 400th anniversary in 2034. That master plan was supposed to wrap in the fall, but it will likely slip past that date, according to Vizza.

The next public meeting, scheduled for the spring, is on hold too, with plans for a new date based on “guidance from public health officials and civic leaders.” The stakeholders, including the city, the Friends of the Public Garden, and Weston & Sampson Design Studio, continue to meet over Zoom. (The stakeholders were the ones counting the number of people passing through the Common daily.)

Meanwhile, the parks big and small, narrow and wide, are open throughout Boston, including the linear Rose Kennedy Greenway, which wends through much of downtown. Just keep your distance.

“We all just need to be generous of one another, thoughtful of one another,” Vizza said, “even as we’re being protective of ourselves.”