AUSTIN (KXAN) —Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) said that on at least six different occasions since the start of the pandemic, people who don’t want to comply with COVID-19 guidelines have assaulted parks employees.
The department says that since March, Austin’s Park Rangers and Park Monitors have been assaulted both physically and verbally in these instances. Employees have been yelled at, cursed at, pushed into the lake, threatened with weapons, punched, and pushed to the ground.
The city issued a release about these incidents on Monday, asking the community to “spread kindness, not COVID.”
“It takes a toll on individuals trying to share an educational message, to be personally attacked both verbally and physically,” said Amanda Ross, PARD Division Manager for Natural Resources in a release from the city. “These employees are there to assist the public, not become an outlet for their frustration.”
To encourage social distancing and prevent the spread of COVID-19, parks employees have worked to share safety messages with Austinites about closures, reservation systems, and social distancing, the city said.
In the release, the city reminded the public that Park Rangers are not commissioned peace officers and they do not carry weapons. Park monitors, the city said are staff members who have been temporarily reassigned because of closures within their city divisions due to the pandemic. Monitors check reservations, explain health and safety guidelines and offer basic park information to visitors.
“During these difficult times we would ask for some grace and understanding as the park system reopens,” said PARD Assistant Director Lucas Massie. “This is new territory for us all.”
While Travis County said its parks haven’t seen the same incidents city parks have, but Travis County joins the city of Austin in asking the community to “spread kindness, not COVID.”
“If you see something, say something by calling 311, or 911,” said Austin Park Ranger Program Manager LeAnn Ishcomer. “Austin is an extraordinary community, and we have been through so much together this year. We are asking for your support in making our Parks and public spaces safe for everyone in this community.”
According to City of Austin 3-1-1, there have been 156 reports made to the city from the start of July until now, claiming that a lack of social distancing or over-occupancy is happening at a City of Austin park. 101 of those reports were made in the month of July and 55 of those reports were made from the start of August until now.
Due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in the Austin area in late June and early July, PARD decided in early July that all park facilities and amenities would remain closed through early August.
On August 8, the department opened back up both Bull Creek Greenbelt and Barton Creek Greenbelt with the caveat that on weekends, attendees have to make reservations, noting that the Barton Creek Greenbelt was seeing environmental impacts to the trail due to high use. Reservations are also required for visitors on weekends at Commons Ford Ranch Park, Emma Long Metropolitan Park, Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park. Reservations for all parks can be made online.
PARD said that two city employees had been assaulted since August 8.
This information from PARD is not the first report of people assaulting or harassing public employees related to COVID-19 guidelines in Austin.
In recent weeks, Austin-based Infowars, a media outlet known for conspiracy theories and fake news, has taken to lashing out at Austin Parks employees who are tasked with enforcing the local regulations designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, yelling at parks employees at trailheads through a megaphone.
As recently as Saturday afternoon, InfoWars employees were seen in many videos violating these COVID-19 rules and breaking into the closed Barton Springs Pool. A person who wants to remain anonymous and watched this situation unfold said that city employees and Austin Police eventually got this group of people to leave the pool.
Barton Springs Pool is currently closed as are other City of Austin pools.
PARD tells KXAN that there were no assaults on city employees or concerns for the safety of city staff during that incident at Barton Springs on Saturday.
The department said that city staff spoke to the people at Barton Springs and shared that the area was closed. Several of those people listened to the city staff, but more started to climb over the fence, PARD recounted. Austin Police then responded to Barton Springs, PARD said.
PARD also noted that no participants or organizers at the Saturday event received warnings, fines, or other punishment from the city.
Back in May, a park ranger who was trying to disperse a crowd at Lake Austin said he had been pushed into the water. Police said back then that a 25-year-old had been arrested in the case.
A video shared on social media of the May incident appeared to show the ranger speaking to the crowd and asking them to keep 6 feet of distance apart to help stop the spread of COVID-19
The video shows a man running up and pushing the park employee, sending them both into the water, then the man who did the pushing climbed out of the lake and ran off.
The affidavit noted this action put the ranger in danger.
PARD told KXAN Monday that the department is working with Austin Police on these incidents and areas of concern, working to update staffing in the areas the city has the most concern about.
PARD also noted that park closures happen in consultation with Austin Public Health and city leadership, factoring updates from the pandemic on a daily basis. The city says as risk stages decrease, more park facilities could open. However, if pandemic conditions in Austin worsen, the PARD could again close amenities and facilities in the city.