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When 'Facetime Isn't Enough': Friends Head To D.C. Parks To Eat And Drink

An outdoor picnic in the grass

The outdoors is a big part of how people socialize during the coronavirus pandemic. Some visit from a distance, on a porch or folding chairs in the yard.

In Washington, D.C., people have been using the green space inside Dupont Circle, a historic traffic circle downtown. On a recent Friday evening, picnickers sat scattered around on benches and grass lawn, many of them eating from takeout containers. Others are dancing around the circle's marble fountain.

Grace Guerrero Ramirez and Ari Davis were lying on the grass, eating pizza they had picked up from a nearby restaurant. Some D.C. restaurants began offering indoor seating in late June after Mayor Muriel Bowser relaxed earlier restrictions on businesses. Amid a subsequent surge in coronavirus cases in July, Bowser instituted a mask mandate for most everyone in public with exceptions for eating and drinking.

"We were hungry and wanting to get some food but we're not quite comfortable with sitting down at an actual restaurant," Davis said.

They're not alone. These days, parks across the city are drawing crowds normally seen only on weekends, according to Delano Hunter, head of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation. He said parks are helping residents hold on to "some semblance of normalcy" in the middle of a pandemic.

For many city dwellers who don't have yards, parks offer a place to see their friends at a safe distance from strangers. That's turning parks — even one in the middle of a traffic circle — into social magnets for people like Guerrero Ramirez and Davis.

"It's really cool how people have reappropriated these spaces, like we have people here dancing and listening to music," Guerrero Ramirez said. "It's just a really good vibe."

They were enjoying a bit of alcohol with their dinner, which they concealed in their water bottles. Others in the park were openly drinking wine. Despite those open wine bottles, there's been a 42 percent decrease in arrests for open container laws this summer.

D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department told NPR in an email that its focus is on helping to stop the spread of COVID-19 — and they emphasize that they're doing that through education on social distancing and mask wearing, rather than enforcement.

Across the park, another group of picnickers celebrated a holiday, Eid al-Adha. Usually, Neha Misbah goes home to Florida for the holy feast of the sacrifice. But this year, she didn't want to risk traveling to a state where COVID-19 infection rates are much higher than they are in D.C.

So she and some friends picked up dinner nearby and took it to Dupont Circle.

"I've actually done this quite a few times to meet up with people, because most of us are usually here alone without our families," Misbah said

Misbah's friend, Ali Marmal, said he's tired of socializing only online.

"Sometimes Facetime isn't really enough," Marmal said.

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