As Tina Fabrizio and Susan Hesser finished walking the trails around Estell Manor Park on Saturday morning, they celebrated reaching 5,000 steps.
“I’m smiling behind here,” Hesser said, pointing to the mask covering her nose and mouth. “I’ve been cooped up for 60 days. I needed to get out.”
The Mays Landing women were among several groups of people taking advantage of the county park’s reopening, with the parking lot packed just after 10 a.m. as families and friends pulled bicycles out of car trunks and applied bug spray.
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“I think as long as people keep on their masks,” Fabrizio said when asked how she feels about the crowded lot. “Especially with all the rain we’ve had. It’s depressing enough being locked in your home. It’s nice to have a sunny day.”
Dozens of people took advantage of Gov. Phil Murphy’s executive order that allowed counties to reopen their parks starting at dawn Saturday, in addition to reopening state parks and golf courses. He had ordered state and county parks closed April 7 to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 after officials noted numerous instances in which people were gathering and socializing in groups in those spaces.
It’s one of the first restrictions lifted across the state, even as cases of the new coronavirus continue to increase, including in Atlantic County.
County officials reported 36 new cases of the novel coronavirus and four new deaths Saturday, bringing the total number of positive cases to 1,059 with 48 fatalities and 198 residents deemed recovered.
During his daily media briefing Saturday, Murphy noted early reports from police and park officials said people were following social-distancing guidelines at the reopened facilities.
By late afternoon, several state parks had reached half their capacity and were closed to additional arrivals, according to an Associated Press report.
Murphy saw the reopenings as a key test to see whether cases accelerate and people observe social distancing.
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“If we hear minimum reports of knucklehead behavior in our parks, and we see the metrics we need to meet being met over the next couple of days and weeks, then we know that you all have taken to heart your responsibility,” he said, adding he would not hesitate to close the parks again if residents’ behavior necessitated it.
But not everyone thought the parks should have been closed in the first place.
Brian Vaughan and his daughter, Delphine, both of Absecon, rode bikes along the park trails Saturday morning, something they said they’ve been doing regularly for years.
“I just don’t think that should have been closed to begin with,” Vaughan said, adding he hasn’t seen too many people along the trail. “It seems like everyone is just getting out and enjoying the day.”
After getting a birdie on the 13th hole at the county-owned Green Tree Golf Course in Egg Harbor Township, Scott Health, of Ocean City, said he “woke up this morning like it was Christmas,” excited to get out and play a round.
The course had 78 people scheduled for tee times, Operations Manager Matt Plunkett said. There were only two open slots left at the end of the day.
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“Everybody has been good and understanding,” he said, explaining the governor’s restrictions include limiting groups of golfers to two, among other guidelines. “They just want to play.”
The tee sheet was full at the Brigantine Golf Links, too, Head Professional Gabe DeLiberty said.
“I honestly think it could be raining today and people would be out,” he said.
The course had roughly 70 people on the sheet, DeLiberty said, explaining that due to social distancing guidelines, it’s only about a quarter of how many slots would be filled on a normal day.
Brigantine resident Frank Lardiere said the restrictions, which mainly focus on keeping players distanced and sanitizing equipment, wouldn’t affect his game.
“It’s you against the course, and the course always wins,” he said, commenting it was “wonderful” that the course was open and that it wasn’t too early for officials to reopen them.
“Everybody’s being conscientious,” he said. “I think it’s good for everybody. You can’t keep Americans in; we’re fighters.”