Yakima park visitors surge during pandemic

YAKIMA, Wash. — Yakima Parks and Recreation staff have seen a tremendous increase in visitors to local parks during the pandemic and are anticipating more as the weather gets better.

“At times as challenging as this, it’s a necessity to get out, get the fresh air, get exercise, stop staring at the same four walls — even if the weather’s not great, it’s important,” Yakima Parks and Recreation Manager Kenneth Wilkinson said.

Wilkinson said they attribute the increase in park visits to people being unable to do other activities due to COVID-19 restrictions: going to the movies, shopping, eating indoors at restaurants or working out at the gym. He said people started using the park to replace those activities.

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“I think it’s helped a lot of people’s mental health,” Wilkinson said. “We know that parks are critical for cities for communities where people have a place to go and get fresh air.”

Wilkinson said it was frustrating and disappointing not to be able to do many of the group-based activities the parks department usually holds in the spring and summer.

“One of my favorite things is to go to Franklin Park on a Friday night and listen to a concert, listen to great music to sit with friends and family and just enjoy beautiful weather and a beautiful park,” Wilkinson said. “That was hard and not being able to provide that for the community.”

On Monday, Yakima County moved to Phase 3 of the Healthy Washington: Roadmap to Recovery alongside the rest of the state.

“Not a lot changed for us going from Phase 2 to Phase 3,”  Wilkinson said. “It did increase our capacity at Lions Pool from 35 to 75, so we’ll be able to have more people in the building.”

Lions Pool — the only city-owned indoor public pool — closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions and did not reopen until August. The city was unable to open its outdoor pool at Franklin Park last year, which typically opens in June.

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Wilkinson said it’s too soon to tell if the city will be able to open Franklin Pool this year.

“We are hopeful that we will be able to open the pool, it may be with less capacity,” Wilkinson said. “Capacity at Franklin is 400 people and so we don’t know what that’s number is going to be.”

Wilkinson said they’re also hoping restrictions will loosen enough to be able to hold events that were cancelled last summer, when Yakima County was dealing with high rates of infection and hospitalization.

“We’re hoping to be able to do some concerts in the parks,” Wilkinson said. “If people are willing to social distance and wear their masks I think we should be okay as long as the groups don’t get real large in tight spaces, so we’re very optimistic at this point.”

Wilkinson said anyone interested in volunteering to help clean up local parks or donate to park improvements can call Yakima Parks and Recreation at 509-575-6020 or email him at ken.wilkinson@yakimawa.gov.