Since its inception, the Magical Bridge has stood out as an exceptional place — the only Palo Alto playground where children and adults of all abilities can explore, exercise and play.
But as the city began to reopen its playgrounds last week after more than six months of closure, the popular Mitchell Park attraction is exceptional in another way: It is the only playground that the city plans to keep closed for the foreseeable future.
The city's decision to keep Mitchell Park closed is based in large part on the playground's popularity. It's a regional attraction that drew about 25,000 monthly visitors before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ironically, its exalted status as a playground for everyone is also the main factor for why the city is keeping it closed.
"Recognizing this particular venue has been a regional attraction, in order to ensure our partners can maintain adequate social distancing, that will not be opened immediately," City Manager Ed Shikada said at the Oct. 5 meeting of the City Council, where he announced the plan to reopen all the other playgrounds. "We're still working on a plan on when and how that will occur."
To date, the city has not given a timeline for reopening the Magical Bridge. When asked about the playground's reopening, the city's spokesperson Meghan Horrigan-Taylor said the playground would require a "much different approach" than the other playgrounds to meet state and Santa Clara County limitations on gatherings and other safety restrictions.
"Timing of reopening remains unknown at this time," Horrigan-Taylor said in an email.
The city's approach, she added, is to "learn from the reopening of existing playgrounds first before further development of a reopening plan for the Magical Bridge Playground."
"State and County restrictions also limit the opening of Magical Bridge Playground and relaxing of current crowd limitations will be needed before we can attempt to reopen," Horrigan-Taylor wrote. "We urge the community to select another playground at this time and stay safe by not trying to access the Magical Bridge playground while it remains closed."
For Charleston Meadows resident Yael Uziel Naveh, whose son has nonverbal autism, the city's decision is heartbreaking. It effectively means that some of the most isolated children in the community — those who don't have the option of participating in organized sports or using other playgrounds — will be denied a valuable resource.
"A playground is one of few places they can socialize with kids safely at the moment," Naveh told the Weekly. "They're being put last on the list again."
Naveh said that while her son is physically able to go to other playgrounds, the option is less than ideal because he is much bigger and older than most other playground users. Other children with disabilities may not have that option at all, she said.
"Many of his friends have more physical limitations than he does," Naveh said. "Some of them have visional or physical disabilities that make regular playgrounds completely inaccessible to them."
She noted that some playground users have been flouting the rules during the pandemic and using the Magical Bridge playground despite the city's official policy. She has opted not to go that route, she said.
"I won't teach him to jump the fence. Kids on wheelchairs and who are visually impaired won't be able to jump the fence. The people who need it most are the least able to access it," Naveh said.
When Naveh expressed her concerns to Mayor Adrian Fine, he responded by saying that the city hopes to reopen the playground, but "probably not for a while." He noted that the city "cannot deploy staff at all hours to enforce social distancing and masks."
Fine also suggested that the Magical Bridge Foundation, a nonprofit that is working to create more inclusive playgrounds, is "strongly opposed to reopening for some of the above reasons."
But Jill Asher, co-founder of the Magical Bridge Foundation, says that's not the case at all. Her nonprofit is now working with Redwood City to open a new inclusive playground at Red Morton Park. The playground remains under construction but the Magical Bridge Foundation has been working with city leaders and the current plan calls for opening the space in late November, when construction is completed.
Redwood City's plan for opening the playground calls for city staff controlling crowds and ensuring that visitors wear masks (if they can), adhere to social distancing rules and stay 30 minutes or less, consistent with state guidelines for reopening playgrounds.
Asher said the foundation wants to see Palo Alto take a similar approach, rather than delay the reopening to an unspecified future.
"We absolutely want the playground to open now," Asher wrote to the council. "We want to be positive partners in the reopening. With that said, we only want it open if there is city staff (or a combination of staff and volunteers that are managed by the city) to control the number of visitors (like they do at Whole Foods and Trader Joes)."
Both Asher and Naveh acknowledged that safely reopening the Magical Bridge playground would require more resources, a challenge for a council that has recently reduced expenditures by nearly $40 million. But even with the recent cuts, the approved budget includes $744,000 for addressing COVID-19 impacts that the council had not addressed in June, when it passed the budget.
The approved budget also includes $404,050 for replacing the rubber and synthetic turf at the Magical Bridge Playground, funding that the council can redirect if it so chooses.
Asher suggested in an email to the council that the city's current approach to reopening playgrounds — which relies on signage rather than staffing — isn't working. Over the weekend, she said, more than 50 visitors had jumped the fence at the Magical Bridge playground and disregarded the signage, she said.
"We want to be a positive partner in reopening. We want to help in any way we can to train staff on how to meet and greet visitors — and really, be an extension of our Kindness Ambassador Program," Asher wrote. "We also believe this will be a wonderful way for city staff to positively engage with the community — especially for our disabled visitors and classes, who have nowhere else to go. (Your other city playgrounds do not meet their needs)."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.