Officially, Auckland playgrounds are closed, but people are still using them because poor signage is making it hard to tell if they’re out of bounds or not.
Last time New Zealand went into level three lockdown, playgrounds were one of the first public areas that were closed to the public. Not only were they closed, they were taped, locked and heavily signposted – it would have been impossible to ignore the instruction that the playgrounds were not to be used.
Round two of level three lockdown started last Wednesday lunchtime for Auckland, and it’s been stated many times by the prime minister and director-general of health that the same rules apply as last time. Despite this, families have swarmed to playgrounds in the sunny weather, and with a number of public playgrounds yet to be signposted or clearly blocked off, they’re being used by hundreds of people daily.
David Murdoch, dean of the University of Otago, Christchurch, is a clinical microbiologist and infectious diseases physician and says playgrounds are risky environments during level three.
“It’s really hard to quantify what the risk is, but looking at playgrounds, they’re just one of those places of congregation – obviously churches have been another focus. They’re places for young children so it’s harder for them to understand the reasons for the physical distancing and being able to adhere to it and control it.”
Experts suggest the virus may be able to stay active on metal and plastic surfaces for up to three days, which means a child may not even have to visit a playground on the same day as an infected person to get the virus. Murdoch says fomite transmission is tricky to quantify, and it is far less likely to occur if the basic health measures are being adhered to – like washing hands.
“In situations where there is regular cleaning obviously that reduces it, and if people are washing their hands regularly. It still has to be acquired by the person so it has to get from an object into the body’s system to cause infection, and that’s another potential barrier.”
Earlier, Auckland mayor Phil Goff told Morning Report’s Susie Ferguson that a further 1,000 signs would be placed in Auckland playgrounds today to warn people off using the equipment. He said it’s concerning people aren’t sticking to what they were taught in the first level three lockdown.
“Younger people congregating around basketball courts, playgrounds et cetera. That is a concern and by the end of today we will have put up about 1,000 notices telling people to stay off playground equipment.”
But he also agreed that signage may not be the most effective way to stop people from using the equipment, and has asked for the taping that was used last lockdown.
“I’ve strongly recommended that they put tape out, because younger people will ignore the notice, but if there’s tape over the equipment, that’s harder to ignore.”
Rod Sheridan, general manager of community facilities at Auckland Council, says there are plans to tape off and lock 60 high-use playground facilities. He told The Spinoff that as of this morning, more than 500 old signs have been removed and around half the playgrounds have new signs in place.
“Following the announcement on Friday evening that alert level three would be extended, we mobilised as many contract and council staff as we could to go around the network and remove old signs and replace them with new ones… The remainder will be completed by the end of the day today.
“Around 60 high use playgrounds will be taped off to reinforce that they are closed. Those playgrounds that can be, will be locked.”
The council won’t be taping all playgrounds though, as they say the tape often gets removed and can cause litter problems.”Taping off playgrounds is a deterrent, to reinforce the message carried on a sign. Unfortunately, it is a rudimentary method and tape is often damaged or removed… The council has reviewed its playgrounds and limited this to the sites that are most used and/or are causing the most concern.”
Murdoch says effective health communication is about repetitive messaging, and he doesn’t think it fair that people are being blamed for not knowing every level three restriction.
“Everybody is having to remember what [level three] was. But in fact we probably spent less time in level three than any other levels so remembering how it’s different from those… repeated messaging is important without any doubt at all.”
The difference between communications in and around playgrounds now versus in the first iteration of level three is stark. In March, swings were bolted together, slides and other equipment was taped off with yellow tape, and signs, like the ones we’re seeing on some playgrounds now, were pasted clearly to multiple parts of the playground.
Sheridan says the council will be auditing all playground sites daily to ensure the proper signage remains, and asks Aucklanders to report all “damage or removal of signs, or any rogue signs inadvertently overlooked, to the council”.