Collaboration in the Time of Pandemic

April 23, 2020, Feature, by Paul Gilbert

2020 May Feature Collaboration in the time of Pandemic 410

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A group of park directors discuss the importance of unified messaging and communications

As park and recreation professionals, we make certain that our agency maintains an effective communication strategy for our staff and community members we serve. However, what happens when you’re faced with a global outbreak that is not only having a dramatic impact on your agency, but also at the city, county and state level?

During this fast-changing COVID-19 pandemic crisis, a group of park and recreation directors have built on well-established ties to provide a coordinated response and work through difficult decisions together.

The Northern Virginia region in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., is an area where regionalism has long been a unifying force. For decades, the park directors in this area have gotten together periodically and worked in collaborative ways. As the pandemic began to unfold rapidly in March 2020, the amount of emails and discussions among the park directors in the region picked up. For several days, the information exchange and coordination changed by the hour. For all those engaged in the fast-paced dialog, it was a silver lining to an otherwise stressful situation.

Sharing Experiences and Challenges
Reflecting on why this group has coordinated so seamlessly, Cindy Roeder, director for parks and recreation for the Town of Herndon, says that it was “something we’ve built over many years, most recently illustrated by the success we had producing the state conference a few short months ago. We’ve banded together on legislative issues, shared needs assessments, accreditation and planning documents, rejoiced in successes and commiserated over budget woes, many times before.” This strong foundation was put to the test withthe pandemic.

NOVA Parks, the regional park system in this area — with facilities in three counties and three cities — has rapidly transitioned through the following steps, a pattern similar to most of the other agencies:

  • March 10 – Level I – Sanitation: A higher cleaning regiment was put in place
  • March 12 – Level II – Reduction: Cancelled all planned programming/events
  • March 16 – Level III – Separation: Closed all buildings to the public. Cross-trained and separated staff needed for key functions
  • March 24 – Level IV – Passive Access: Closed gates and parking areas to reduce groups from gathering, with only trails open
  • March 30 – Reduced staff scheduled, and implemented more direct social media efforts to encourage the public to only go to parks within a walk or bike ride from their home

At every stage, these colleagues worked together, and in many cases, took the same actions at or about the same time.

One of the benefits of this collaboration was working on crafting the right response when information from political leaders was not always clear and consistent. With so many spokespeople for the pandemic, there have been many mixed messages at the federal, state and local levels. One example that affected parks was the Virginia governor’s order on March 20, closing most businesses and making it illegal for groups of more than 10 to gather. In that same announcement, the governor encouraged the public to use parks and trails for exercise.

On the following weekend, large crowds gathered in many Northern Virginia parks, with hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of individuals and families using some of the last public gathering places that were open. This unsafe situation was unintentional, but needed to be addressed to preserve public safety. After a great deal of dialog among the park directors, a number of the park systems in the area closed their gates and parking areas to reduce the crowds. “For me, the greatest win in this horrendous situation has been our effort to share and consult each other, in order to help coordinate our actions in the NOVA region. This has been a plank of support for each of us as we have made these tough decisions related to public health and our park system,” remarks Kirk Kincannon, executive director of Fairfax County Park Authority.

The range of issues has been long. Should playgrounds be closed? How do we keep pick-up basketball games from happening? How best do we communicate these and other issues to the public? What are the plans for facility and program startup, when the time is right? In many cases, the best advice came from this group of colleagues. Jane Rudolph, Arlington County director, Department of Parks and Recreation, reflects, “In this time of so many unknowns, having regional colleagues to ask questions, get feedback and coordinate our decisions is vital. Northern Virginia’s park systems are intertwined from our extensive trail network to our residents, engaging in each other’s programs and facilities. Our coordination and collaboration has ensured that the same messages to our residents are consistent. I am grateful to work with these park and recreation leaders during this time, and I am buoyed by their dedication and empathy.” Leslie Herman, Town of Vienna director of parks and recreation, shares a similar appreciation for being able to work through the many issues together. She says, “I have not had to navigate this uncharted territory alone. It has been reassuring to discuss the concerns we all are experiencing.”

Strength in Numbers
The field of parks and recreation is one where we are all working to serve the public in new and exciting ways. We are normally trying to attract people to our places and programs. Shifting to closing down activities and discouraging gatherings [are] completely counter, and very difficult to adjust to. But as responsible public servants, we have shifted to focus on reducing the spread of the virus until this crisis is resolved. “Bottom line is that members from the community within the region benefit by these coordinated efforts. It has certainly made it easier when I am asked ‘what are other agencies/departments doing about this?’” says Danny Schlitt, City of Falls Church director of parks and recreation.

While this loose group of about 10 park and recreation directors have known each other for years and worked on many things, there has never been a time when the connections, trust and mutual support among these directors have been more critical. It is one region and one media market. Many people in this dense urban/suburban area are not clear where the city, county and town lines are, so common and coordinated messaging from the park agencies is a great help to the public.

We all can think of situations where stress has brought out the worst in people, but when positive connections and networks are in place, they can also bring out the best in people. “It was impressive how the Northern Virginia agencies made it a priority to respond and keep one another informed in a very fast-moving environment. It aided greatly when informing our boards and the public,” says Laura Kowalski, Reston Association’s director of recreation and environmental education.

Steve Torpy, Loudoun County director of parks, recreation and community services, remarks on this dynamic that has been observed and appreciated by the group of directors when he says, “In a time when uncertainty and anxiety are both in unlimited amounts, people look to parks and recreation to be the calm in the storm. For so many citizens, we are the face of county government, and they look to county government in times of emergency. Having the ability to lean on the other directors, share ideas and decisions, and even find time for laughter, which is so important to remember to do, has helped me in my efforts to be that calm for my own department.”

At the most immediate level, the pandemic is a world health crisis like none that we have seen in 100 years. In the medium and long term, this will be a fiscal crisis with huge effects. But, it also can be a time to come together around a common set of challenges and shared values. In Northern Virginia, the network of park leaders formed over the years has taken on a new importance. As a profession of highly adaptive and creative public servants, the park and recreation field is uniquely positioned to help our communities in the days ahead. And in Northern Virginia, we will look at our professional networks in a new light, knowing how important they can be in a time of crisis.

Tune in to the May bonus episode of Open Space Radio to hear Gilbert talk about collaboration during a pandemic.

Paul Gilbert is the Executive Director of NOVA Parks.