Backlash against COVID-19 restrictions in Burnsville erupted during Tuesday’s City Council work session, leading staff to reverse a decision closing playgrounds in city parks.
A 3-2 council majority of Cara Schulz, Dan Kealey and Vince Workman opposed closing playgrounds. Schulz also opposed police enforcement of the governor’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses, but no changes in police procedure are planned.
The decision to post signs closing playgrounds was made Monday and they began going up Tuesday, City Manager Melanie Lee told council members during the videoconference work session.
Many residents have voiced concerns about children catching the coronavirus from playground equipment surfaces, according to Mayor Elizabeth Kautz. Guidance from the National Recreation and Park Association and the Centers for Disease Control informed staff’s decision on the “hot button issue,” Lee said. Signs advising precautions because equipment may carry the virus had previously been posted.
Closing playgrounds disadvantages Burnsville’s many apartment-dwelling children, while the more fortunate may have backyard playgrounds, Schulz said.
“The people of far more modest means, we are heaping burden after burden after burden on them,” she said. “They’re being disproportionately affected by what is happening.”
Kealey said it’s ridiculous for the CDC to recommend closing playgrounds when customers in the “petri dish” grocery stores he’s observed have insufficient social distancing, masks or gloves, and touch many surfaces.
“The inconsistency is frustrating the devil out of me,” Kealey said, suggesting that the city advise people to bring sanitary products to playgrounds. “It has really gotten ridiculous.”
Workman said the city has found a way to increase social distancing at its pickleball courts and thus keep them open.
“I believe there’s probably room for that here as well,” he said.
A resident and nurse, Linda Kraemer, called into the work session and said she’s one of the people who have urged the city to close play structures. She said many residents have mobilized on the issue.
“And now tonight, I’m hearing those decisions are being second-guessed,” Kraemer said.
Keeping playgrounds open endangers low-income children because they might return to their apartment complexes infected and infect other children, Kraemer said.
Social distancing isn’t “a concept toddlers and preschoolers understand,” she said.
Kautz and Council Member Dan Gustafson said the city manager has the right to make the decision. One exchange grew heated.
“You’re undermining the authority of the city manager who was hired to run this city under our policies,” Gustafson said.
“These are unprecedented times, Dan,” Kealey said.
“Overriding the city manager is not the right thing to do,” Gustafson said.
“That is absolute B.S. We’re not undermining anybody,” Kealey replied.
Kraemer said she will be “reinvigorating our community” to oppose opening playgrounds.
The city has reduced the number of open pickleball courts to promote social distancing, Lee said. The skateboard park has closed because social distancing wasn’t achieved. The well-used trail around Sunset Pond has been made one-way to promote distancing.
School district closed playgrounds
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 has closed its playgrounds in response to new CDC guidance for park and recreational facilities. An exception is made for playgrounds where child care is being provided, during child care hours.
Superintendent Theresa Battle announced the closings Wednesday in an email to School Board members.
It said the closings are in alignment with CDC and the city — which has now reversed course.
Schulz, a prominent member of Minnesota’s Libertarian Party who works for the national party as a candidate recruiter, said the city should “step back and step out of” enforcing Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders on businesses.
Her priority for having the city enforce the orders “is about zero,” Schulz said. “I do not think that this is a priority for our city right now. We have a lot of priorities right now. We’re going to need a lot of goodwill in our bank in our community so we can trust one another and work with one another.”
Kealey asked City Attorney Joel Jamnik if the city can refuse to enforce the governor’s executive orders closing specified businesses.
“In my opinion, no, given the language of 12.28,” Jamnik said, citing the state statute that requires emergency-management organizations to “execute and enforce” governors’ orders.
“This is the law,” Gustafson said, noting that the orders include a possible fine and 90 days in jail along with a request for voluntary compliance. “We don’t get to change that. We don’t get to impede it.”
“I’m not saying that we block them (the state) from doing anything,” Schulz said. “That’s up to them how they wish to do that. What I’m saying is this is a confusing area that changes constantly and can really impact people’s lives directly.”
Police Chief Tanya Schwartz said the department and code inspectors respond to complaints about business that are open in violation of orders. In all contacts thus far, businesses have agreed to close, she said. The city’s approach is “working with our community” and “educating,” Schwartz said.
“We may look at it as educating someone, but if we have a uniformed police officer go to a business and tell them they need to shut down, on the receiving end — and I do know this because I talked to a business that was on the receiving end — that does not feel like education, nor does it feel voluntary,” Schulz said.
The Michaels Store in Burnsville is one that closed and reopened under the governor’s changing and confusing orders, Schulz said.
The latest order says workers are allowed at arts and crafts stores, but only for the purpose of distributing materials that can be used to make personal protective equipment for pickup or delivery.
“Craft stores have been shut down,” said Heather Jelinek, a resident who called in and said crafting is her outlet for battling severe depression and anxiety. “They’re essential to me.”
Jelinek said her home craft business is in jeopardy amid canceled shows, and she can’t work her day job as a massage therapist during the pandemic.
“I want my financial freedom back,” said another caller, Sara Schmitt, a 43-year Burnsville resident and a self-employed manicurist. “I want to be busy, and a thriving business in Burnsville again,” she said.
Also calling was state Rep. Hunter Cantrell, DFL-Savage, who defended Walz’s orders and said the governor is seeking to open more businesses that can be operated safely during the pandemic.
“We cannot afford to make a misstep in this capacity,” Cantrell said. “The stakes have never been higher.”