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As Mecklenburg Flattens Curve, County Cuts Off Parking For Greenways, Parks

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
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Mecklenburg County has closed all parking lots to parks and greenways

Since Mecklenburg County's stay-at-home order began March 26, county parks have stayed open. And they’ve been a source of outrage.

Outrage over photos and videos of people playing soccer and volleyball. Over people not social distancing on greenways and sandbars.

But on Wednesday, the county closed all parking lots to greenways and parks in an attempt to limit the number of people using them.

Parks and greenways will still be open for people walking and biking. The county said that blocking off parking lots would help people practice social distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19. 

"We’ve had enormous requests from people to close the parks," said Mecklenburg Commissioner Pat Cotham, who says the county tried to find a middle ground of keeping parks open – but only for people who come without a car. "I think it was more that they were trying to split the baby."

But on the same day the county announced the parking lot closures, the county received good news about the pandemic.

Novant and Atrium said they don’t need a 3,000-bed emergency hospital – and instead need one for 600 people. Atrium CEO Gene Woods said the “curve is flattening” – as the county’s day-to-day increase of new known infections is now around 10%, after being consistently above 20% in early April and late March.

On Wednesday, Mecklenburg's cases increased from 805 to 848 - a 5% increase.

Former Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour said he doesn’t understand why the county is now making the stay-at-home order more restrictive.

"We had all this positive news over the last day or two and then Mecklenburg County decides to restrict people’s access to parks," he said. "It just doesn’t seem to make sense and I think it’s a bit demoralizing to some people."

Ridenhour lost reelection in 2018, and is running for his old seat again. In social media posts earlier this year, he said the coronavirus was a severe threat. And he agreed with efforts in Charlotte and globally to flatten the curve to make sure hospitals aren’t overwhelmed.

"And it seems like that’s what’s happening," he said. "We’re managing that here locally. But further restrictions ... it almost seems like they just aren’t trying to flatten the curve but end the curve. And that’s impossible."

At a news conference Wednesday, Mecklenburg health director Gibbie Harris said the stay-at-home order is working, and needs to be strengthened.

"It looks like the curve is beginning to flatten," she said. "But it also means that we have to – have to – continue social and physical distancing. And in fact, we need to increase it to (have) further progress in the numbers that we’re looking at."

At McMullen Creek Greenway on Wednesday, the parking lot was barricaded. One man did pull-ups on fitness stations on the greenways. A handful of others, like Greg Taylor, rode bikes.

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Credit Steve Harrison/WFAE
McMullen Creek Greenway was almost empty Wednesday.

"I think people should be able to go out and enjoy the outdoors, and if that means parking in areas adjacent to a park then you should be able to do it," Taylor said.

The Trust for Public Land last year ranked Mecklenburg 96th out of 100 urban areas in the quality of its park system.  That means there just aren't that many parks for people within walking distance.

Taylor said it’s not realistic that many people will walk or bike to the greenway,  if they have to cross Pineville-Matthews Road -- which is five lanes.

"My house isn’t right on the greenway," he said. "And so I ride about three-quarters of a mile through neighborhoods to get to the access. But I never have to get out on an open road."

Brian Cox, a member of the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Commission, said he agrees with the parking lot closures – even though it will make it difficult for tens of thousands of county residents to access greenways and open space.

He says the problem was driven by the most popular parks, like Freedom Park near uptown.

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