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Update: Essential Functions of Parks & Recreation

Yesterday, Governor Walz announced the extension of the Stay at Home Order (Executive Order 20-33) to Monday, May 4. A lot of us have been working hard the past few weeks to make sure that we offer the services that our constituents have come to expect in the face of limited contact, and we will continue to stand firm in providing those services. Now more than ever parks & recreation are becoming an essential function, outlet, avenue — or whatever word you want to use — for people to find a sliver or normalcy in the chaos.

With the temperatures warming, we are all getting ready to open more of our facilities for the peak season, and when you add in the everyone’s desire to get out of their homes, the pressure and questions are mounting on when and what will be open. Yesterday’s announcement has helped bring some clarity to some of those questions, but some of those answers will still come on a wait-and-see approach, which is not an easy place to be in. Responses have varied, and agencies need to make the decision that is best for their community regarding their operations.

Visiting parks and trails still encouraged
One of the questions that we as professionals continue to get is, “Are parks and trails still open?” The answer is yes. The exemption for outdoor activities such as walking, hiking, and more is still in place and the governor still is encouraging you to get outside and enjoy a park or trail. As you do this, please maintain the social distancing guideline of a 6-foot space between you/your family and the next person/family. This cannot be stressed enough. This is a vital part of keeping everyone safe and healthy and for getting us all through this as quickly as possible.

The impact of Executive Order 20-04
It also important to mention Executive Order 20-04, which addressed public accommodations. There are several views that one can take with what “public accommodations” are. Some might not consider campgrounds and public beaches as one, but we as Greater Minnesota Parks & Trails believe that they would fall into that category. We would encourage you to think of them this way as well. This order was originally set to expire May 1, but now will expire May 4.

We are taking notes on what the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is doing. As most of you know, they were scheduled to open campgrounds at the state parks on March 28. Last weekend they announced a postponement in that opening until May 1, and we fully expect that date to move to May 4. If you operate campgrounds, please follow the DNR’s lead and delay opening at least until May 4, when the “Stay at Home order” expires.

The other big impact this order will have is on agencies that operate public beaches. For many of us, this past Wednesday gave a little taste of early summer weather, and I am sure we all saw activities in the parks that we normally do not see until the middle of May. Things such as people playing sand volleyball, mountain bikes heading to trails, and people starting to dip their toes into the cold waters at public beaches. EO 20-04 presents a tough situation with public beaches like what we faced with playgrounds. Do you close them or leave them open? If you do close them, how do you do it and how do you monitor it?

What you do will entirely depend on what you are capable of. If you can close your beach with a physical barrier and feel that is the best route to go, then by all means, proceed. If physically closing them off is not possible, which will probably be most agencies, then signage at your facilities becomes paramount. You can word it as closed or word it as a recommendation, but whatever you do make it clear that gathering at a beach is not a wise decision during these times. You may have enough staff to be able to monitor the amount of people and spacing, but the chances are too high that social distancing guidelines will not be followed. In this case, erring on the side of caution is encouraged.

Final Thought
As recommendations are changing almost as fast as technology does, it is hard to keep up and figure out what the best practices are. As an organization, Greater Minnesota Parks & Trails is trying to stay on top what is going on and how it could impact you as an agency and professional. We hope that these articles provide you some insight and maybe even a little help in navigating these uncharted waters.

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