An elderly man pushes a small dog in a big stroller. Two roommates chat as they eat lunch on top of a hill. A dad counts to three and races his daughter from tree to tree. People run — quickly, slowly, some of them gasping lightly for breath. They rollerblade and they bike and they toss frisbees and they lift weights and they sit on blankets in the sun.
They cook eggs and toast on outdoor grills and they play old Beatles songs on the drums and they walk their dogs and they watch the ducks waddle around and they breathe in the air, which still carries that smell it sometimes has right after it rains.
Life in Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park on this early Saturday afternoon feels almost normal but for the occasional face mask, the tape closing off playgrounds and the groups of people standing farther apart from one another than they might have on a summer day in a different year.
Already a community hub, parks have become even more for many people during the outbreak — an outdoor gym, a place to meet up with friends, a refuge from the noise and chaos of working from home, or a way to be near other people while still maintaining separation.
For Taylorsville resident Aimee Altizer, Liberty Park currently serves as part fitness studio and part headquarters for her weekly writing group through Flourish Bakery, a social enterprise that teaches professional baking to people in recovery.
“It’s a beautiful rejuvenation of the use of our parks,” she said of the increased amount of time she and others have been spending in these public green spaces since the coronavirus came to Utah in mid-March. “People may not have noticed them as much before.”
Altizer, the executive director of Flourish Bakery, was at the park Saturday with the fitness group Warrior Strength, which is made up largely of people who are in recovery from substance abuse or other addictions.
She and around 20 other people stood in a large circle on the lawns, spaced about 10 feet apart, and squatted in unison as instructor Frank Young shouted directions.
“It should get super uncomfortable; sort of like being sober,” he yelled at one point during a difficult workout. “You’ve got to learn how to get uncomfortable to get comfortable.”
Young has a brick-and-mortar gym in South Salt Lake but told The Salt Lake Tribune that the outdoor workouts at the park are more inclusive, since current guidance for fitness centers requires 10 feet of social distance between people from different households that means not as many people can participate indoors.
“We take all the precautions for social distancing,” Young said. “But for these people, this is just as important for them to be able to connect and get support from each other. You’re going to see a huge uptick in relapse, overdose death, all of that [due to social isolation from the coronavirus]. That’s part of the reason we do this.”
Phil Janson, a Bountiful resident, is another Utahn who’s spending more time in parks since the pandemic came to Utah.
The 67-year-old often set up his drum kit at parks across the Wasatch Front before the coronavirus. But since losing work as a result of COVID-19, he’s found even more time to play. Early Saturday, he staked out a spot near the pond at Liberty Park.
“It’s fun to entertain people and spend a few hours,” he said. “It’s good practice” — and it also provides an opportunity to lighten the spirits of people who may be struggling during the pandemic.
“I’ve had a lot of people approach me and thank me, just thank me over and over,” he said.
During the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, parks provided one of the last places people could go to get out of the house, aside from the grocery store, as restaurants, gyms, malls and other public gathering places shuttered their doors to defend from the virus.
Most of the state is now operating under the “yellow” guidance level, which allows gatherings of up to 50 people, club and youth sports to practice and play games and all businesses to open if they take reasonable precautions, such as social distancing and encouraging use of face masks when staying 6 feet apart is difficult.
Salt Lake City is one of several communities that currently remains under more strict guidelines at the moderate-risk or “orange” level of coronavirus risk — a list that also includes West Valley City, Grand County and Mexican Hat and Bluff in San Juan County.
Despite the increased sense of pre-pandemic normalcy, state health officials reported the highest daily increase in cases Saturday since the pandemic came to Utah with 203 new confirmed diagnoses of the virus. That brings the total number of cases to 8,260 — a rise of 2.5% since Friday.
More than half of the state’s 8,200 coronavirus cases, or 4,898 of them, are considered “recovered," meaning the person who contracted the illness has survived for three weeks following a diagnosis for COVID-19.
Also on Saturday, the state reported that four more Utahns had died from the coronavirus, bringing the state’s death toll from the pandemic to 97.
Three of the deaths announced Saturday were women and Salt Lake County residents. One of them was older than 85 and a resident at a long-term care facility. The other two were between the ages of 65 and 84 and one of them was also resident of a long-term care facility, according to details provided by the state health department.
The fourth death was a Utah County man between the ages of 65-84 years old.
Because the risk of the coronavirus remains, Salt Lake City leaders continue to encourage visitors at public parks to maintain 6 feet of distance or more between people outside of their households.
Most restrooms and drinking fountains remain closed, as are skate parks, playground equipment and fitness equipment areas. All facility rentals, including pavilion and wedding reservations, have been canceled. Organized activities like the Warrior Strength’s fitness classes are allowed only as long as participants are able to remain at least 10 feet away from one another.
Still, Saturday afternoons at the park will go on much as they always have. And for Salt Lake City Parks and Public Lands Director Kristin Riker, the increased visitation is a reflection of the value those spaces hold.
“We kind of forget how important parks are to our community and to having mental health and physical health and how important it is for all of us to be able to go outside and be in a green space where there are other people,” she said in an interview early last month.
“It’s been really fun to see” how many people are enjoying them, Riker said.