Urban Park and Recreation Leaders Discuss Rapidly Evolving Impacts of the Coronavirus Pandemic

By Richard J. Dolesh | Posted on March 13, 2020

Coronavirus Urban Leaders blog 410

NRPA convened a group of urban park and recreation directors on March 10, 2020, to discuss how the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is affecting their cities, and how each of their lessons-learned so far could help inform each other and other park and recreation professionals to prepare and take action when needed.

Chaired by NRPA president and CEO, Kristine Stratton, park and recreation directors from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles City, Las Vegas, Chicago, and New York City shared how their agencies are participating in coordinated emergency response to the impacts of COVID-19. Though the rate of community spread and infection from COVID-19 vary widely across the country, the experiences of each park and recreation agency were strikingly similar in facing the challenges that this nationwide epidemic is expected to bring to every community, large and small.

The directors tackled some of the toughest challenges they are currently facing — the immediate questions about older adult programming; what decisions they will make if schools close; how they will navigate potential pressures from the public and elected officials; how far in the future will they cancel large events; will they provide refunds for canceled events, programs and facility rentals; what additional facility cleaning protocols will be implemented and who will perform cleaning; how agencies will support employees by addressing employee work schedules, sick leave for career and non-career employees, and teleworking policies — the list goes on and on.

One clear fact emerged from the wide-ranging discussion. Park and recreation departments are considered an essential partner in the intergovernmental emergency response planning. Directors and their designees have been named to the emergency management teams of each city. In some cities, the park and recreation departments already have a continuously functioning emergency management or incident response team as part of their department operations. Other cities have begun mobilizing their own teams and are fully occupied updating ‘continuity of operations’ plans, such as with pandemic addendum, in concert with other city agencies. This is relatively uncharted territory for even the largest cities that are well-experienced in disaster planning and response, and a lesson that we will all learn from this public health crisis.

Each of the directors noted how fluid the circumstances were in their own cities. In Seattle, largely considered the ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, many actions have been taken by the mayor and the governor of Washington State to reduce the spread of transmission.

In other cities that have not yet experienced a significant number of coronavirus cases, park and recreation agencies are still in the planning and reacting phase and are now beginning to confront major decisions about restricting large public gatherings, canceling programs and events, closing indoor recreational facilities, and managing school closures.

Several issues are proving to be common to all agencies and they revolve around restrictions on public use and access to facilities; cleaning and disinfecting facilities and equipment; employee issues including the use of sick leave, teleworking, and pay; continuity of operations planning; serving vulnerable populations, especially older-age and food-insecure persons; and supporting social distancing practices for employees and patrons.

Restrictions on Public Use

Restricting public use is perhaps the most fluid of all. Decisions to restrict public gatherings, cancel large public events, and whether to continue daily recreation programming are challenging every park and recreation department. Agency decisions on public access restrictions need to be made in concert with mayoral and executive directives which sometimes preempt agency decisions. For example, the Chicago Park District daily programming serves more than 100,000 people, reaching far into every community in the city. The city has just closed all senior centers to protect that most vulnerable population, affecting many of their programs and facilities. On March 12, a cascade of park and recreation facility and program closures is sweeping across the U.S. As of March 13, Seattle and Montgomery County, Maryland have made decisions to close their recreational facilities, including community centers, pools, environmental learning centers, senior centers and more, with the exception of preschool services in Seattle.

Continuity of Operations Planning

One of the most important tasks that directors say they are facing is to complete planning for continuity of operations. This planning includes participating in an Incident Command Structure (ICS) if their city operates under one, defining their essential services and assigning who will perform them, addressing labor and worker issues, and planning to adaptively manage as conditions or circumstances change. Because the COVID-19 outbreak is unlike other disruptive or disaster-type events, planning for continuity of operations is much more challenging than in other system-stressing events.

Mitigation of Spread

In the early stages of the pandemic, health departments attempted to employ a containment strategy of contact tracing, that is, isolating the individual and identifying everyone the infected person had been in contact with and monitoring them. However, partly as a result of a lack of effective and available testing, the number of infected persons with no contact with other persons known to be infected has grown dramatically and may grow exponentially. Containment strategies, therefore, have morphed into slowing the spread of infections by encouraging people to avoid places where there are large groups of people, to distance themselves at least one meter or more from other people, to thoroughly clean surfaces with disinfectants, and to take aggressive measures to wash hands refrain from touching one's face, and other measures to slow the spread of transmission of the virus. For example, this week cities across the country have made efforts to encourage social distancing. Both private and public sector decisions have been made to close theatres and concert venues, museums, restaurants, amusement parks, and other places of leisure.

Vulnerable Populations

According to multiple epidemiologists, the profile of the population most likely to become infected is adults over 60-years-old and those with underlying health conditions and compromised immune systems such as those with heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory illnesses. Because of that, each of the directors noted that they have given special care to addressing the needs of vulnerable populations. Most agencies have closed senior centers, suspended older adult programming in community centers, and ceased any events for seniors. There is a high degree of concern among the directors that the many thousands of older adults, as well as children who receive meals in before school and afterschool programs, will not have a healthful nutritional meal if these programs are suspended. There have been actions taken by USDA to support meal access through child nutrition programs and park and recreation agencies may end up playing an even greater role in this space.

Another area of concern for urban directors and public health officials has been the stigma associated with COVID-19. Fear and anxiety about a pandemic can often lead to misinformation and stigma towards certain people or places. Public health officials and the CDC have expressed concern that stigmatized groups may be subject to rejection, denials of proper health care, housing or employment opportunities, or even physical violence. It’s important to stress that this virus has the potential to impact every person – no matter race, ethnicity, age or income. Park and recreation directors have expressed the importance of sharing facts, controlling misinformation and educating the public to address potential biases and discrimination.

Employee Issues  

Agencies are grappling with several issues relating to employees. These include questions about testing employees who become ill, paid sick leave during self-quarantine periods, hiring and interview practices, the current push for hiring of summer and seasonal employees, staff assignments and reassignments, teleworking policies, and other issues likely to arise if closures continue in the face of widespread infections within local populations. Staff who are performing a deep cleaning of facilities and surfaces must be trained and equipped with personal protective equipment. What should employees do if they come in contact with someone who is known to be infected? Federal legislation has been proposed that would address many of these concerns and provide support for employees, however many of these questions are yet to be resolved.

Social Distancing

CDC recommends maintaining six feet of distance, or more among individuals to prevent transmission of COVID-19 through the air. Park and recreation agencies are assessing how they can adapt programs and facilities, especially indoor programs and facilities such as gyms, fitness rooms, meeting rooms, to ensure proper social distancing. Some cities expect to apply graduated restrictions on public use of facilities, community centers, and programs to encourage the recommended social distancing.

Continuing and Unresolved Questions

Despite long experience with natural disasters and disruptive events, the urban directors participating in this roundtable discussion raised many, as of yet, unanswered questions. Because the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak are evolving on a daily basis, each of them expects the situations in their cities will change rapidly as well. Among the questions they raised were: What will the financial implications be on parks and recreation budgets, both from shutting down programs to broader revenue impacts felt by their cities? What will contract service providers continue to operate or provide services for? What should protocols be for drinking fountains? Grappling with these and more will be a priority for directors going forward, and NRPA will be here to help through resources found on our website and NRPA Connect.

In response to a question if agencies will close their parks, directors were united in one response: “No!” In fact, they were emphatic that they intended to keep parks open and encourage public use of parks. Each felt that walking, hiking, and spending time outdoors was a path to keeping healthy, as long as all precautions and recommended social distancing was followed. Let us hope that this is one of the prescriptions for beating the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak.

For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

Richard J. Dolesh is an editor-at-large for NRPA.