Parks & Recreation in the time of COVID-19

March 27, 2020 update: The post below has been updated to clarify whether playgrounds must close under Gov. Walz’s “Stay-at-home” order. We have received confirmation that the decision to close playgrounds will be left up to local jurisdictions.

The past few weeks have been eventful to say the least, and as an industry as whole we have all been struggling with what to do. As guidelines and orders change day-to-day, one of the constants is that people are still encouraged to get out to a local park and go for a walk, which means our parks and trails are becoming more essential than ever before. But how do we manage them during this time? How do we protect our staff and still provide services? What are the best practices? How are we impacted by the Governor’s executive orders?

Although we don’t have all the answers, we can shed a little light on what we are doing and the thought behind it, as well as how the specifics of the Governor’s executive orders may impact you.

Parks and Trails Under Stay-at-Home Guidance

First off, we want to encourage use of our parks and trails. It is a great way to get outside while keeping social distancing guidelines of 6 feet space in place. Most of the parks and trails that we all manage have plenty of room and space to accommodate them. For example, one acre of open space can accommodate 250 people and one mile of trail can handle 525 people and keep within recommended guidelines. So yes, encourage your citizens to get outside, but be smart about it. You may want to post guidance on your website and at entrances to parks and trails.

This advice aligns with Governor Walz’s Executive Order 20-20, which asks Minnesotans to Stay at Home. The order specifically carves out an exemption for outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, and more so long as everyone stays at least 6 feet away from people from other households. The order also states that people may go to available public parks and other public recreation land.

Playgrounds

Another big question is playgrounds. What do we do? The Wright County Parks & Recreation Department has taken the step to recommend that people not use our playgrounds at this time. I have reached out to some of the manufacturers as well and their recommendation has been to follow your local guidelines and use caution. Another course of action would be to close your playgrounds all together, like the cities of Rochester and Bemidji. What you do as an agency is your call and the only wrong decision would be indecision at this time.

As a CPSI (certified playground safety inspector), I take this issue seriously. As a father to two young children, I take this issue to heart. The decision in Wright County was made with the following factors in mind:

  • Playgrounds by nature are not designed to keep the social distancing guidelines in place. In fact, playgrounds are typically a place to create social efficacy or cohesion and connection within a community.
  • Pressure washing equipment is the only way to really clean a playground. Most manufacturers do not recommend the use of bleach or harsh chemicals as they can harm your equipment. For us as a department, we know we would not be able to pressure wash them enough.
  • Even if we could pressure wash the equipment two to three times a day, as soon as someone gets on it the cleanliness is gone. Yes, kids are supposedly the least vulnerable, but they can still carry the COVID-19 virus which in turn can spread to adults. So effectively we felt there was no way we could keep the playgrounds clean enough to be safe at this time.

All the playgrounds that Wright County Parks & Recreation maintains are in open spaces without any fences or gates to create a physical barricade to keep people from using them. So, the means to do so would have been too much for our staff at this time. All of this is what led us as a department to issue a recommendation to not use the playgrounds within our park system. We have placed signs at every playground that state this recommendation and encourage visitors to utilize the trails and open space. We wanted to wrap a negative up in a positive.

Governor Walz’s EO 20-20, “Stay at Home order,” does not specifically address playgrounds, so we as parks & recreation professionals need to do what is best for our communities. If you have the means to close your playgrounds or you feel a recommendation is more of what your community needs, I encourage you to do so. A new infographic has been created to help provide clarity to our communities on what is open and closed in response to the “Stay at Home order,” you will notice that playgrounds is not listed under “closed.”

Restrooms

With the increase in the use of parks comes an increase in restroom use. If you are like us, your full-service restrooms, running water and flush toilets are not operational yet. We are set to open ours on May 1, so this has not yet become a serious issue for Wright County. However, we do have pit toilets and port-a-toilets at most of our parks. Like most of you, we are working with our vendors that provide those services to increase the cleaning efforts of those amenities. For us that is our port-a-toilets. Our pit toilets are our responsibility and we have increased our efforts there as well.

The most common issue that we have seen these past few weeks is in the vandalization of our port-a-toilets. All our port-a-toilets are stocked with hand sanitizer. As the situation progressed we found more and more of the units missing their hand sanitizer. Not only were they missing, but the dispensers themselves were broken. At this time, we have made the decision to not restock the hand sanitizer in these facilities for a couple of reasons. First, our vendors and us cannot afford to continue to put sanitizer into the port-a-toilets every day for it to get stolen. Second, it is not only costly to vendors to replace the sanitizer, but they would have to replace the dispensers as well.

As we approach our May 1 opening we will have to decide on what to do with our full-service restrooms. As of now we have discussed many avenues which include opening them up to leaving them closed. I would be filling you with the same thing those port-a-toilets are if I told you I had an answer, so I won’t. I will encourage you to err on the side of caution during this time in deciding on what to do.

Campgrounds

Another issue that might be weighing on everyone’s mind is campgrounds. If you are fortunate enough to operate a campground facility than you know the excitement that this time of year brings as you are more than likely gearing up to open the gates, or maybe you have already done so. This is still a gray area for us at Wright County Parks & Recreation. We are set to open our campground facilities, Collinwood Parks and Campground and Schroeder Park and Campground, on May 1. The day we are set to open is the day EO 20-04 expires, which is the order that closed bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodations. We are not sure how this impacts campgrounds.

EO 20-20 does not address campgrounds. Right now, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is leaving its campgrounds open (DNR COVID-19 Response), which may be a good indication. We will continue to monitor their position, which will help shape ours.

We have developed a continuity of operations plan for our campgrounds that covers scenarios ranging from having a limited opening in which we would possibly eliminate our same-day reservation sites and take no more new reservations to potentially dealing with a season-long closure. Each system is unique and how you are going to handle your staff and operations may vary from what we are doing in Wright County. We hope that we can maybe provide a little help in your decision-making process.

Staying Connected

On a little different note, we want to stay connected with each other as professionals. As a collective we are stronger than any individual. We are fortunate to have such strong, creative, and innovative people among us in Greater Minnesota and we want to make sure that we all work together. Ideas of how to connect not only to one another, but to our communities will be vital through this process.

One resource that has come up in the past week is a shared google document through MRPA. As of March 18, 40 agencies had shared their operations plan in this shared space. Michelle Snider, Executive Director of MRPA, has graciously allowed us to share this resource with you, our Greater Minnesota Parks & Trails members. Next time you interact with someone from MRPA be sure to thank them for working with us and allowing us as professionals and a parks and recreation industry to work as one.

Another way to connect is through our social media platforms. The mission statement of Facebook is “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together,” that statement is more relevant now than ever, so let’s use these platforms as they were designed. If you haven’t “liked” or followed the Greater Minnesota Parks & Trails Facebook or Twitter page, I encourage you to do so.

Additionally, let’s use social media as way to share ideas on how we are helping our communities through this time. I know this isn’t Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, but one thing we are doing at Wright County Parks & Recreation is sharing with our social media friends each day something new that they can do with their families that is outdoor oriented. This does not mean it is something they will do in our parks, but something that we advocate for as parks and recreation professionals. This week alone we have shared information about NRPA’s Wildlife Explorer’s notebook for families to do, ideas to educate children and family members about our common feeder birds with some craft ideas, how to identify buckthorn and take something useless and make it useful, and campfires–a science experiment in the making. For each of these items we have provided fun and educational links for them to visit. My personal favorite so far is the science behind the perfectly toasted marshmallow!

In Conclusion

As we grapple with these issues and more, we know that some people will not follow our recommendation to not use our playgrounds. In fact, if we tried to close them we know some people would still go around barriers or ignore the closure sign. So, our approach to educate, recommend and encourage people to use the trails and open space is our current approach, and so far our community has reacted positively to this method. We do not want to close people out of the parks and further limit their ability to have some normalcy in today’s times, but we do want to be cautious. Encourage your communities to come to your parks prepared for changes. As an example, in our situation in Wright County, we are urging people to bring their own sanitizer, come with water to drink as water fountains are not operational at this time, practice “leave no trace” principles if you can and take out what you bring in. We are wiping down trash can lids, cleaning port-a-toilets the best we can, and keeping things operational, but every little bit helps.

If you have any questions about this or any other approaches that Wright County Parks & Recreation has taken to help our community during this time, please feel free to contact me at Bradley.harrington@co.wright.mn.us or the Wright County Parks & Recreation Director, Marc Mattice at marc.mattice@co.wright.mn.us. I also encourage you to reach out to the GMPT at greatermnparkstrails@gmail.com if you have additional questions.

I hope that you are staying safe during this time and taking whatever opportunities that present themselves to engage your community to the best of your abilities. Stay vigilant as people are now understanding the important, vital, and necessary role that parks and recreation plays in their community.

Sincerely,
Bradley Harrington
Parks & Recreation Operations Manager, Wright County Parks & Recreation
Board Member, Greater Minnesota Parks & Trails