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New Yorkers soak up the sun on High Line park, nearly empty at its reopening

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A few dozen New Yorkers wandered through Manhattan’s elevated High Line Park on Thursday, marvelling at the lush gardens, city views and lack of crowds as it reopened with limited capacity after a four-month shutdown due to COVID-19.

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The park, a 1.5-mile (2.3-km) strip of green built on an old elevated railroad that runs along Manhattan’s West Side, was one of few city parks to close in March, in part because it was too narrow to permit proper social distancing, the Board of Directors said in a statement.

The High Line that opened on Thursday, mostly empty and its walkway dotted with bright green circles spaced six feet apart, was an unfamiliar sight to New Yorkers who know it as a tourist haven. That made it an especially welcome respite for the lockdown-weary.

“This is huge. It actually makes it feel like things are coming back to normal,” said Greg Bruckno, a 50-year-old programme coordinator.

Bruckno said he used to walk to work along the High Line but stopped because it got too crowded. On Thursday, he appreciated the chance to show the park to his friend Stan Redfern, a New Yorker who had never visited before because of the tourists.

“By the time I got around to going, I saw all these billions of tourists lined up so I thought, ‘I’m not going to go there,’” said Redfern, 80 years old and recently retired from publishing.

One of the city’s most popular tourist attractions since it opened in 2009, the High Line attracts millions of visitors every year.

Visitors now must make reservations to enter the park at a specific time under new rules in place to prevent crowding. Staff members were stationed throughout the park on Thursday, reminding visitors of another new policy: foot traffic can only move north from the Gansevoort Street entrance at the park’s south end to prevent bottlenecks.

A few people sunbathed on wooden lounge chairs wearing masks and sunglasses. Others snapped selfies, pushed strollers or read books in the shade.

Homecare nurse Barbara Duggan sat on a bench with a bouquet of flowers. It was her 71st birthday, and she had come directly from visiting Governors Island, which reopened on Wednesday.

“It’s hopeful to see things starting to open again,” Duggan said. “It’s amazing that people cooperated so that the numbers went down.”

The city, once the epicentre of the United States’ COVID-19 crisis with more than 6,000 new cases daily, has recorded fewer than 300 new cases daily in the last week with a positive test rate of about 2%.

Sooman Park and Juyun Lim were relieved to have a new outdoor destination to bring their 2-year-old daughter, Chowon, who was dozing in her stroller after toddling around the walkway.

Park, who attends Columbia Business School, said he and Juyun had only let their daughter and 5-year-old son play in their neighbourhood near Columbia University’s campus for months while the city was shuttered.

“We really missed midtown and other parks in the city,” he said. “We’re going to book another ticket for next weekend.”

Reporting by Gabriella Borter; editing by Jonathan Oatis