Spring fever and COVID-19 concerns meet in parks

By , Daily Memphian Updated: April 01, 2020 9:18 AM CT | Published: March 31, 2020 4:56 PM CT

The bronze likeness of Tom Lee in the riverside park named in his honor still reaches out to rescue a floating figure from the Mississippi River.

But someone has stretched part of a green glove onto the fingers of his outstretched hand in a sign of the times.

The city closed Riverside Drive by the park Tuesday, March 31, in an effort to reduce crowds in city parks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland took the action after several sunny days last week drew large crowds there and to other parks, including Overton Park, MLK-Riverside Park and Shelby Farms Park.

At Overton Park Tuesday, two unmarked police cars blocked the Tucker Street entrance. Farther east, by the park’s closed nine-hole golf course, there were barricades at the park entrance with a police patrol car in front of them.

City limiting park access

At Tom Lee, getting close without living nearby required some calculation.

Construction of the One Beale project overlooking the northern end of the park has much of the bluff top access by road blocked or at least hindered.

Shortly after the rains moved out late Tuesday morning, there was a handful of people in the park.

As the sun came out in the early afternoon, the park drew a few more runners, dog walkers and the curious, including several people walking the length of the closed Riverside Drive from Beale Street to Georgia Avenue.

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In Overton Park, several runners were making their way to the Old Forest while the still-soggy greensward was empty.

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The crowds came to the parks last week on sunny, warm days. Tuesday, rain started the day but had cleared by late morning and gave way to qualified sunshine. It’s just the right mixture for a quarantine version of spring fever that Strickland sought to tamp down Monday when he announced the road closures starting Tuesday by as many city parks as possible.

Strickland noted that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines do not call for closing parks.

“In fact, many doctors actually recommend people getting out and about,” he said Monday. “This is, for lack of a better word, a stair-step approach. If this does not work in our parks and we still cannot keep people from congregating in our parks, we may have no other choice but to make a closure.”

Hyde Lake at Shelby Farms Park, which is visible from busy Walnut Grove, has been a magnet for the crowds. And while some city parks saw their roads into and through them blocked by police and other city employees, there were not road closings in Shelby Farms Park.

Like Overton Park, Shelby Farms Park is maintained and operated by a conservancy. Unlike Overton Park, Shelby Farms Park is on land within the city of Memphis that is owned by Shelby County government and the conservancy’s contract is with county government.

“Hyde Lake and that visitors center are such a community hub,” said Angie Whitfield, marketing and communications manager for the park. “It’s always been a hub for people, so people do naturally gravitate toward that. It’s a nice little walk around the lake. But we are encouraging people to, if they are coming to the park, to consider other places. There are plenty of other trails.”

The conservancy has also urged visitors to maintain social distancing and has closed some parts of the park, including the Woodland Discovery Playground that became off limits Monday. Chairs and tables by the lake have also been removed. The week before, Laser Tag and Paintball were closed along with horse stables and the zip line and its adventure course.

“We may be attracting people who aren’t as familiar with the park, who may be coming to the park for the first time in an effort to get to some air and some space,” Whitfield said. “And that’s great. But they may not be aware that we have 40 miles of trails. We are 4,500 acres. So there are other places.”

The Memphis River Parks Partnership had its staff in Tom Lee Park and the other riverside parks it maintains and operates for the city again Tuesday to welcome and watch and possibly warn those coming to the river.

Beale Street Music Fest rescheduled for October

This is normally the time of year when Riverside Drive is closed to prepare for the Memphis In May International Festival, starting with the three-day Beale Street Music Festival in Tom Lee Park.

The festival has moved to the fall because of the pandemic, with the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest coming first Sept. 30-Oct. 3 and the music festival Oct. 16-18 with a new date still to be set for the Great American River Run.

Meanwhile, planners hired by the Memphis River Parks Partnership are working on the coming renovation and reconfiguration of the 30-acre park that was to begin as soon as the festival ended at the end of May with the festival relocating in 2021 to other places.

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“Obviously, the Memphis in May move to October threw us a curve but that’s OK,” said Carol Coletta, president and CEO of the partnership. “We can adapt.”

Work on the park would have been in full swing in October. Now, planners working for the partnership are looking at three eastern entries to the area.

“They have expanded their scope to include up Beale to Wagner, which was not in the original scope of Tom Lee Park work,” Coletta said. “They have included Vance Park at the top of the bluff, which is another entry way to the park. And then they also included Ashburn Coppock Park. … It’s a much more significant set of moves than I think first meets the eye.”

Coletta expects to know in about month whether there could be some work on those areas that could be underway as Memphis in May completes its new fall schedule.

“There are things that we believe can be done early that would not affect the ground plain of the park itself,” she said. “But we are still trying to figure out. If you are going to do early work, you don’t want to stop and start. You don’t want to spend too much money on the early work and not have enough for the subsequent work.”

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coronavirus Tom Lee Park Shelby Farms Park Memphis River Parks Partnership Carol Coletta
Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.

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