Apr. 8—LEWISTON — City officials were asked Tuesday to reconsider the closures of popular recreational facilities like the basketball courts in Kennedy Park, with several people arguing young people are in need of healthy activities and outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is much less likely.
The discussion was sparked Tuesday by Lewiston Middle School teacher Michaela Tepler, who urged the city to reopen the downtown basketball courts following news over the weekend of several middle school students involved in fights at a Lewiston trampoline park.
Tepler said young people "need more appropriate places to congregate," and that with weather warming and outdoor transmission unlikely, the city should revisit its policies pertaining to recreational facilities.
The city initially closed the Kennedy Park facilities, including the adjacent skatepark, in March of last year after staff and elected officials received several complaints about large crowds with no social distancing.
On Tuesday, Councilor Safiya Khalid said she'd received several constituent calls over the past few weeks about reopening city courts and soccer fields. She also said her constituents have noticed that the skatepark has since been reopened, while the basketball courts remain closed.
"They are seeing the inequity when it comes to recreational activities," she said, adding that she's "disappointed with the city's inaction."
According to City Administrator Denis D'Auteuil, city staff began working several weeks ago with school staff to "review and develop strategies" around reopening recreation and community sport facilities. Using the current state guidelines, he said the city interpreted that skateboarding, being an individual sport, was categorized as a low-risk activity and basketball, being more a close contact sport, was a moderate-risk activity.
"Both of these facilities are unmonitored recreation facilities and due to the complaints received prior to their closure in March 2020 we made the decision to only allow access to the skate park due to the lower risk factor, and we continued working on plans toward opening all facilities," he said in an email Wednesday. "We are just taking the appropriate steps to ensure that we are following the appropriate guidelines, while working to open these facilities up as safely possible."
Several councilors said Tuesday that they agree with revisiting the previous decision to close the courts.
Councilor Luke Jensen said he believes the picture now is different than it was a year ago.
"Kids are going to be out, they're going to be doing something. I'd rather have them doing something that's productive," he said.
He added that he also believes it stands out as an equity issue.
"I don't think the goal we're aiming for by keeping it closed is actually being achieve," he said.
During the meeting, D'Auteuil said it is a "shift in direction" from what was previously seen from councilors.
"We welcome it, but we will have to go through a process to make sure we implement and open these in an appropriate and safe manner," he said, adding that "it is not at all an intentional move by leadership in any way to create an inequity, and to imply that leadership was doing that is offensive.
Khalid said she was among those who were concerned by complaints last year. But, she said, "kids have nothing to do. It's been a year. I think we should be ahead of this and support them as much as we can and provide them better things to do rather than fighting with each other for God knows what reason."
Councilor Michel Lajoie said city staff has had hard decisions to make, but said "someone's got to make them, and not everyone is satisfied with the results."
Several members of the public also weighed in, including at least three people who said they were teammates on Lewiston sports teams. Some said they have been traveling as far as Scarborough and Saco to play sports.
Muktar Issak said those trying to play soccer locally have had no luck.
"We go to Bates, every field we go, we get kicked out," he said. "No one wants to give us a place to go."
Ibrahim Mohamed said he understood why the courts at Kennedy Park were shut down last year.
"But now, I don't see a reason why," he said. "A lot of folks are willing to mask up to play. It's just better for kids in our community. Sports is a way out for a lot of these kids."
Mohamed said the issue has also highlighted the need for additional public facilities in the city.
"I'm one of those people that goes to Portland and pays money to play, where we could be putting that money into our own community," he said.
On the horizon, however, is a new public field on Bartlett Street at the former Hudson Bus site.
Dale Doughty, deputy city administrator, said the project is going out to bid now, and will hopefully be available for use later this year.