LIVE OAK, Fla. — The First Federal Sportsplex is usually bustling with activity.
From Babe Ruth baseball and softball practices and games to softball tournaments, the fields at the Suwannee Parks and Recreation complex are full of players and action.
And that’s not even considering the pavilions or playgrounds at the Sportsplex, or Heritage Park and John Hale Park.
But now, while open, the parks are mostly vacant.
“The whole impact on us is a multitude of things,” Parks and Recreation Director Greg Scott said as he began to list off the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the parks department.
The county has canceled all rentals of parks and recreation facilities through April 15. The baseball and softball leagues, which were set to begin games last Saturday, are now postponed until the middle of April as well.
Those cancellations have also included two adult softball tournaments and a pair of bicycling groups, one of which Scott said usually means 300-400 riders spending several days in town before departing for a few days. They then come back for several days again, leaving an impact that Scott estimated around $200,000.
“Spending money out in the community,” he said before adding that was before the new normal in which restaurants are open for takeout or drive-through only. “The economic picture is changing. No. 1, they’re not coming and spending the money, but No. 2, the way they spent money would be different if they came.”
Those cancellations may not be over, either. Even if games begin at some point, Scott said the Sportsplex likely won’t be hosting any district or state tournaments this year due to the virus. He said the economic impact of losing the money from visitors across the state isn’t worth the health risk of what may be coming with them.
“It’s just too uncertain for us,” Scott said. “You can’t have people from Jacksonville coming over and bringing cooties with them. It’s OK if they bring their money, but we don’t want your cooties.”
In an effort to keep “cooties” away from local residents that are still currently using the parks — despite activities being canceled, the parks remain open as well as trails and boat ramps throughout the county — Scott said his department are using this situation as a learning opportunity.
Playgrounds are being sanitized more frequently and in the process, staff is determining if they could have done better or do better moving forward.
“That’s one thing we do is use this as a learning tool for us,” Scott said. “What are we doing? Why are we doing it that way? Is it appropriate? And make sure we’re doing everything possible to keep people safe.”
And Scott knows that some would say the parks should close completely in order to help keep people safe, that they’re not doing “everything possible.”
However, as a passionate proponent of the value of green spaces and the role parks play in keeping people healthy — not only physically but also mentally — Scott said that has never been more important than now.
With residents — both children and adults — being urged to spend more time social distancing at home, the parks and trails can provide a mental break.
“We could close things, but that’s not keeping the mental part safe,” he said. “Our stance is if mom or dad wants to go hit a few balls with their kid, we need to give them that escape mentally for a little while from this craziness.”