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The Sport Information Resource Centre

COVID-19 has created an unprecedented challenge for policymakers. Their decisions will have a direct and sustained impact on our physical, mental, social, and economic well-being. Policymakers must be guided above all by evidence, because as they say, “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.” Our review of World Health Organization (WHO) guidance suggests it’s time for governments to revisit the drastic measures of closing all parks and recreation amenities.

In the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, valid evidence was at a premium. As the potential scale of the pandemic emerged, most jurisdictions chose speed over precision. In military terms, because lack of intelligence on how and where to target, governments decided on a broad carpet-bombing containment strategy, rather than targeted surgical strikes. The result was governments in Canada and across the world, put broad restrictions on citizen’s movement to slow the spread of COVID-19 and minimize stress on healthcare systems. This was prudent and the past four weeks of data suggests it is working.

However, after almost a month, like other countries, it’s time to revisit those decisions based on nuanced and contextual evidence. It’s time to use the benefit of this evidence to be far more precise. In fact, the WHO is so concerned about the spread of COVID-19 misinformation that they introduced a MythBusters website to battle the real threat of what they are deeming an “infodemic”. This infodemic is not spreading based on facts, it’s spreading based on fear. As Leo Varadkar, the Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach), a medical doctor declared “We need to halt the spread of the virus, but we also need to halt the spread of fear, fear is a virus in itself.”

One specific policy area we believe it is essential to refine is the blanket closure of parks, recreational and public spaces, and proposals to expand and extend these closures. While the WHO remains vigilant and focused on restricting the spread of COVID-19, they have also raised concerns about the longer-term impact of mass quarantines on mental and physical wellness.

The WHO and many other public health experts do not believe that constraining the spread of COVID-19 and maintaining physical and mental well-being are mutually exclusive. In fact, the WHO introduced guidelines to promote physical activity, including guidelines on walking, running, cycling and use of parks and other public spaces. Similarly, the physical distancing guidance provided by public health experts at a provincial and national level are consistent – maintaining physical activity, while also physical distancing, is a critical component of a holistic COVID-19 prevention strategy. Therefore, we are perplexed that many governments in our country, contradicting the nuanced guidance of public health professionals around physical distancing and safe physical activity, continue to formally or informally restrict safe physical activities. As we shift into spring and summer, these contradictory positions must be aligned to introduce holistic COVID-19 prevention policies that not only enable, but promote, physical activities that align with the most current physical distancing guidelines. As we’ve seen in Calgary on the crowded pathways in the past few days, without a sustainable holistic plan, the mass closing of parks and recreation amenities is concentrating Calgarians into a smaller number of spaces and negatively impacting both physical distancing and physical activity. As we’ve seen on crowded pathways in the past few days, without a sustainable and holistic plan, the mass closing of parks and recreation amenities is encouraging

Calgarians, particularly because of the nicer weather, to seek out respite in a few small locales. This is then negatively impacting the ideals of physical distancing and physical activity. As a start, we propose four actionable recommendations for leaders at all levels to adopt:

  1. Prioritize physical and mental well-being: As part of a holistic COVID-19 community prevention strategy, all communities should establish a taskforce on physical and mental well-being. This taskforce should adopt an evidence-based decision framework focused on the question: “how can we safely use parks and recreation amenities to promote physical activity that aligns with current physical distancing guidelines?” This challenges the pervasive position adopted during the first month, which is best described as “keep it simple and close everything regardless of the level of risk.” This should include contextualizing evidence from other jurisdictions, such as Austria and the Czech Republic and who are testing innovative adaptations of sport and recreation activities that maintain physical distancing, while promoting health and wellness.
  2. Prioritize funding to safely reopen amenities: As part of this holistic strategy, governments must prioritize funding to support the safe reopening of local, provincial, and national parks and recreation amenities in a manner that aligns with both physical distancing and physical activity guidelines. For example, this could include the creative use of the Canada Summer Jobs grants to hire students as physical distancing ambassadors in parks, trails, pathways, golf courses, tennis courts, basketball courts, waterways, and playgrounds. Sensible adaptations might include closing club houses and showers, mandating that tennis courts only be open for singles matches and basketball courts only for shooting hoops, etc.
  3. Introduce a zero-tolerance policy: Governments should introduce a zero-tolerance policy for those who violate the safe use of our parks and recreation amenities and threaten the health and wellness of the broad community. Penalties should range from significant fines to banning future access to all public recreation amenities.
  4. Promote the importance of safe physical activity: Maintaining both physical activity and physical distancing is critical to the sustained social, physical, and mental well-being of citizens and communities. Governments must challenge the misinformation, fear and public shaming entrenched on social media that suggests that all community-based physical activity is a threat to public safety. As part of this, governments must guide citizens to timely, evidence-based health and wellness information, including the use of parks and recreation amenities. Evidence must trump fear.

An essential step in our country’s COVID-19 recovery strategy is for leaders to adopt evidence-based policies that promote the physical and mental well-being of all Canadians, Albertans and Calgarians. It’s time to get some exercise. Be safe.

David J. Finch Co-Chair, ActiveCITY Collective Professor & Associate Director Institute for Innovation & Entrepreneurship Mount Royal University David Legg Co-Chair, ActiveCITY Collective Professor, Health and Physical Education Mount Royal University