By Brendan Kirby
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PRICHARD, Alabama (WALA) — Friday was a gorgeous day, perfect for youth sports or just hanging out in the park.
Just one problem in Prichard – they’re all closed.
Even as other cities long ago reopened their parks and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has lifted all COVID-19 restrictions, city officials here say the virus still poses too great a risk to allow people in the parks or to participate in youth recreation programs.
“The numbers are still spiking,” city spokesman TJ Pettway said.
The prolonged shutdown has drawn increasingly loud voices of protest among youth sports advocates and others.
Community activist Quinn Austin-Pugh noted that COVID-19 transmission is dramatically lower and that health experts say outdoor activities are a low risk. He questioned why Prichard can’t reopen when other cities have long ago.
“My kids live in the city of Prichard. We have to go over to Africatown, which is in Plateau to even be able to play Tee-ball right now,” he said. “You know, it’s ridiculous that I have to go outside my city with my kids to be able to, you know, give them a piece of a piece of joy in their life.”
Austin-Pugh criticized city officials for not maintaining the parks during the shutdown.
“Right now, the grass is literally up to my knees,” he said, traipsing through the football field at Fagerstrom Municipal Park, commonly known as Eight Mile Park. “The grass is literally up to my knees as we walk through now. I mean, it’s disgusting, you know what I’m saying? It’s repulsive to see how the City Council neglects its people.”
Prichard Mayor Jimmie Gardner denied that the city has failed to maintain the parks during the shutdown.
“That’s not correct,” he told FOX10 News. “They cut those parks regularly. As you know, when it rains, it grows.”
Before COVID-19, the park was alive with the sounds of kids playing football. Austin-Pugh has fond memories of generations of football games here. Now, he said, the city risks its youth getting into trouble.
And it’s not just sports, Austin-Pugh said. He noted that Highpoint Park has a brand-new splash pad built with a grant from the Mobile County Commission. He it never has been used. Since COVID, a lock has kept the gate closed.
Bryon Gill, of the Mobile Youth Football League, said Prichard’s policy is bad for youths.
“It’s having a very bad impact,” he said.
Gill added that he has pleaded with the City Council to no avail.
“I’ve given them the paperwork on the COVID situation, as well as the governor lifting the mask mandate,” he said.
James Roberson, assistant athletic director of Eight Mile Park, said the policy is “giving our kids nothing to do” and that Prichard should reopen.
“The park belongs to the people,” he said.
Roberson also is CEO of the Alabama Youth State Championships, which hosted 5,600 athletes at Sage Park in November.
“Not one person caught COVID, because we followed all the safety measures,” he said.
City Council President Ossia Edwards said the council would revisit the issue next month. But the mayor said the time is not yet right.
“We still need to be concerned about the coronavirus, COVID-19. And, from my position as the mayor of the city, I weigh more to the life of those who are living here than I do to whether or not someone is going to get into a park,” Gardner said. “And I think we should be very careful of wanting to rush right into the parks and bring our young kids and gathering with football.”
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