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Dear GT Bynum, Let the Children Play


I live close to a large City of Tulsa park that has a golf course, walking trail, green spaces, and a couple of playgrounds. My (almost) three-year old son loves the playgrounds, and often begs us during walks in our neighborhood to detour to “for-chun” (LaFortune Park). This seemingly innocent request can become a hassle when we don’t really have time, but we indulge him as much as possible. It’s good for kids to play outside, especially with other kids they might not otherwise come into contact with. But sometimes we have to contend with an upset toddler who doesn’t understand why we can’t go to the playground right this minute. I’m not complaining, every parent of young kids deals with similar stuff.


But during the COVID lockdown, we’ve had to contend with an altogether different LaFortune Park situation with our son. As part of the mayor’s shelter-in-place overkill, all city-owned playgrounds were closed “indefinitely.” This wasn’t a guideline or suggestion, the city meant business. They locked gates, hung yellow caution tape over monkey bars, erected orange mesh barriers to entrances and slides, and even took swings off of their poles. All other considerations aside, the playgrounds were simply a sad sight.


How do you explain this to a toddler? I don’t mean that rhetorically. My wife and I have seriously had difficulty explaining this to our son in a way that (a) he can understand, and (b) doesn’t induce fear of things no one his age should have to worry about.


“You see, there is this virus that makes people sick… Yes, sick like you were a few weeks ago when you threw up… Yes I know that was yucky and you didn’t like it. Good thing we had that bucket by your bed. Anyway, this virus can make people like Gramps and Gigi really sick, so the mayor has decided that everyone should stay away from each other… What’s that? Oh, well, the mayor is a person who kind of acts like the king of the city, like Poppy is the queen of the trolls… A city? A city is Tulsa, the place we live. Anyway, the mayor told his workers to take the swings down because he doesn’t want children around each other because he thinks they can make each other sick… Hmm? You know, that’s a good question, I don’t know where they put the swings once they took them down. Maybe they have a storage building that has all the swings from all over Tulsa… Oh, no, we can’t play at the storage building. That would defeat the purpose of taking them down. I’m sorry, buddy, I can’t fix the swings.”


And on and on.


Look, I’m not suggesting my son is going to have serious long-term psychological trauma from this. Kids are resilient, and beginning today, Tulsa’s playgrounds are open for the first time in months.


But can we acknowledge the absurdity of this situation?


The logic for closing playgrounds was always dubious, but quickly became outright unjustifiable as we learned more about the way the virus spreads. We know that the virus overwhelmingly spreads through respiratory transmission indoors, not from touching surfaces. You are extremely unlikely to pick up the virus outdoors. We have known for decades that sunshine is literally a disinfectant and vitamin D and exercise boost our immune systems. We’ve known from virtually the beginning that children are at vanishingly small risk from the virus, typically not even showing symptoms when they contract it. Of all the things children can do right now, it is hard to conceive of something more beneficial than getting exercise on an outdoor playground, socializing with other children.


Nonetheless, while the playgrounds have been closed in Tulsa, the strip clubs have been open. Figure that one out.


Much of our leaders’ response to the pandemic is more virtue signaling than policy. This has led to inexplicable contradictions. The daycares were never forced to close, but the playgrounds and public schools were. The mom and pop clothing store had to close, but the big box stores could still sell clothing because they also sold groceries. There are countless other examples.


Sadly—and surprisingly, for me—far too much of the public’s reaction to COVID has consisted of similar virtue signaling. COVID-shaming is prevalent enough that the term has entered our lexicon. Early on, certain people who largely exist to type in all caps on social media were outraged (OUTRAGED!) that people in Florida were walking on the beach. Just over Memorial Day weekend, the “you are killing people” Twitter hyperbole de jour was some pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks. Throughout the Spring, the more sinister comments involved a not-so-subtle desire that anyone who dared speak up against the lockdowns contract COVID and die. 


The media has fanned these flames in countless ways, but the most bloodless examples have been the near-celebratory glee with which news outlets have reported the deaths of people who ever questioned the coronavirus lockdowns. It became a subgenre of story for certain “news” organizations. I find it hard to relate to someone so ideologically possessed that they glory in digging up old Facebook posts from a grandfather who had the temerity to “not take this seriously” before he died of COVID-19. It is particularly disturbing that such people masquerade as journalists.


The truth is, the playgrounds in the City of Tulsa have been closed because they are one of the few things city officials directly control, and those officials want to be viewed as “doing something.” Well, consider this a plea from a Tulsa dad who is tired of trying to explain the inexplicable to his toddler: you’ve done enough. 


Keep the damn playgrounds open.


Benjamin Lepak is Legal Fellow at the 1889 Institute. He can be reached at blepak@1889institute.org.


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.



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