WEST ORANGE, NJ — As the size of the crowds for unauthorized one-on-one basketball tournament games in O'Connor Park grew over the last two weeks, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi expressed his concern in an initial Facebook post on Wednesday.
On Friday, Parisi blew the whistle, putting an end to the games whose crowds had swelled to, by at least one estimate, close to 1,000 spectators.
"The township will not allow these games to continue, and (we) have advised the organizers that they will need to make other arrangements," Parisi posted to his Facebook page Friday afternoon.
The games, according to an eyewitness who spoke to TAPinto West Orange on conditions of anonymity, were organized by groups from outside of West Orange who were seeking a venue to hold their one-on-one tournament games after they were unable to find suitable outdoor basketball courts that could accommodate them closer to their own area because of ongoing COVID-19 restrictions.
"The basketball tournament that found its way to O’Connor Park over the last week or so is not a township approved or organized event," Parisi said. "But all parks are for all the public to enjoy, so before harshly shutting them down over legitimate health concerns raised by neighbors or via social media, we thought it best to investigate, communicate with the organizers, looking for ways we could be accommodating and attempt to work with them to ensure health standards and in meeting the guidelines for outdoor gatherings."
In his Facebook post on Wednesday, Parisi suggested that the crowds for the games, which continue until around sundown on the unlit courts, had grown to be in the hundreds. But the eyewitness who spoke to TAPinto West Orange said that by Wednesday, the number of spectators could have possible exceeded 1,000.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy's guidance on outdoor gatherings extended the maximum from 100 to 250 as of last Monday, and that limit is supposed to be extended to 500 on July 6.
"We were finally able to make contact with one of the organizers on Wednesday afternoon and carefully and clearly outlined the concerns and the parameters needed to be met for continuing to have the games in the park," Parisi said. "The organizers provided sufficient communication to participants and spectators in advance of the games and were genuinely accommodating to the township’s concerns. The township organized OEM and EMS staffing and was present for Thursday evening’s game. We handed out masks, offered assistance, and provided general COVID-19 safety guidance.
"However," Parisi continued, "based on the size of the crowd, and despite the best efforts of all involved, it is clear these games cannot meet the current guidelines for outdoor gatherings outlined by the state of New Jersey. The crowd grew well in excess of the current number of people permitted in outdoor gatherings and the very nature of the event, watching games on one court, have this large crowd tightly gathered together with little or no social distancing and most spectators, despite being provided with masks, chose not to wear them."
Parisi explained why he did not have township officials put the brakes on the basketball games earlier than this.
"I recognize the frustration that grew from these games, but we have an obligation to have a first-hand and thorough understanding of circumstances before making decisions," the mayor said. "Communicating with organizers and having proper staff on hand allowed us to have the necessary information and facts in finalizing the decision believed to be in the best interest of the community and in the best interest of public safety."