WEST ORANGE, NJ — Weeknight crowds at O'Connor Park have been on the increase in recent evenings to watch basketball games.

The games, which are not sponsored by the township of West Orange, have drawn crowds of more than 100 people, with many spectators neither observing social distancing guidelines nor wearing masks.

In a statement he posted on his Facebook page Wednesday, West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi said:

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(T)his is NOT a Township sponsored event. And by all accounts, participants and fans are not residents with many coming from as far away as New York. Comparing this to our canceling the 4th of July festivities is inaccurate. It would not be responsible for government to sanction and organize an event that would gather thousands of people given the COVID-19 pandemic to celebrate the holiday this year. But that does not mean that government has the ability to stop people from gathering. People always have a right to assemble. And when large crowds are gathered, we have an obligation to police them. Having officers on scene for these games is not an endorsement of them, but rather routine public safety given the size these crowds have grown to…keeping people safe while monitoring parking and traffic.

Additionally, we do not have the ability to shutdown a park; state Executive Orders that did provide us that ability have expired. Unlike some news events that have garnered attention because of the large crowds of people not being responsible in certain businesses, this is public property, not a private business operating outside the current guidelines for private business. Parks are always open for all people. We cannot open them for some people, but not others and as a park originally funded with Green Acres funding, we do not have the ability to limit it to residents only either. Currently outdoor gatherings can be up to 250 people, increasing to 500 next week, and social distancing and wearing of masks is only a recommendation. Basketball is permitted as it is considered only a moderate contact sport.

But just because we have the right to do something, it does not mean we should. And the Township would prefer these games were not taking place and more importantly, we would prefer that the players and the spectators, despite the innocent intentions, would wait until later in the summer when conditions may be improved. Current guidelines do not require masks, and the Township has no ability to enforce the wearing of masks. I understand the frustration in that, and I do not disagree with much of the frustration expressed today on social media or in direct communication. Much of that frustration, for me, is that government must always be guided by what is legal…and despite what may be obvious to some, all people enjoy the same rights. And in this case, the right to be reckless.

The Township will be on hand again tonight as we anticipate they will be returning. But we will be on hand with EMS, Health and OEM professionals. We will be handing out masks and posting signs encouraging compliance with the CDC recommendations for large gatherings. We will attempt to track down organizers and speak with them about the health emergency and the safety concerns that still exist. We will hope to get cooperation in either having them relocate the games, canceling them or ensuring that people present will practice proper health safety under the COVID-19 recommendations while they are there. We will continue to monitor this, as long as they are there, and do what is necessary in the interest of public health.