With COVID-19 concerns forcing people indoors, park leaders and residents alike are struggling with how to balance the need for social distancing with the need to stay physically active in order to minimize risk and maintain health.
On March 25, 2020, City Parks Alliance hosted a webinar with park professionals focused on COVID-19 and the challenges of managing staff, facilities, and programming, working with authorities and other agencies and continuing to meet the needs of the community during the health crisis.
President & CEO of Laurel Hill and West Laurel Hill Cemetery
Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation
President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy
General Manager at San Francisco Recreation & Parks
City Parks Alliance is striving to adapt its programming to be responsive to the changing needs of park professionals during this challenging time. Support from our members is critical to enable us to continue offering this type of programming. We hope you’ll consider joining City Parks Allinace if you aren’t already a member. To do so, please visit cityparksalliance.org/join.
The full webinar can be viewed here. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Nancy Goldenberg, board co-chair of City Parks Alliance and President and CEO of Historic Laurel Cemetery in Philadelphia and West Laurel Hill Cemetery:
Welcome, and thank you for joining City Parks Alliance for this discussion about how park leaders are adapting to challenging circumstances as we all strive to serve our communities during this unprecedented time. With heightened concerns over COVID-19 forcing people indoors, park leaders now find themselves balancing between what seem to be competing needs. On one hand is the critical need to help communities maintain wellness during this stressful time by providing access to safe outdoor spaces for both physical activity and mental relief. On the other hand is the need to follow social distancing. Public health guidelines and local directives vary in restrictiveness from city to city.
How is your agency responding to the many changes and challenges brought about by COVID-19? And in particular, how are you balancing the need to follow local directives with the need to provide access to safe spaces to help residents maintain their physical and mental wellness?
Mitchell Silver, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation:
New York City is allowing people to go out for their daily tasks and exercise included as one of those daily tasks. For the time being, our parks, fields, and courts are open for solitary exercise, but group play is not permitted. For the time being, our playgrounds are open, but there are caution signs saying use at your own risk. Everything is changing day by day, so we’ll be evaluating how people are self-distancing within the parks. We have multiple conference calls a day with City Hall, with my senior team and then communicating out to staff.
Everything changes day to day. We’re listening very closely to our health professionals and updating our signage in park entrances about using proper hygiene and social distancing. We now have the police department, the parks department, as well as other agencies becoming social distance ambassadors, going out in various parts of the city to make sure people understand they have to social distance. We may move to a more severe measures of locking playgrounds and fields and courts, but we’re taking it day by day.
A recent Times article stated, “Wow, everything is closed, the park was the only area that’s open.” It’s free, and people are banking on having a place to go to while schools are closed to get some fresh air and enjoy the outdoors. Physical health and mental health boost the immune system and at least from a distance, offer some social contact.
Phil Ginsburg, General Manager at San Francisco Recreation & Parks:
Right now, our park system and all of our programming and permits, have been suspended. Our parks are open, but we have taken an additional step in closing some of our smaller playgrounds and putting closed signs around play structures. One of the things which we’re quite proud of is that we have converted all 35 of our recreation centers into emergency childcare operation centers. Because our schools are closed now through May 1st, we are providing childcare to all of San Francisco, healthcare worker families, and to city employees activated as disaster service workers. We are also offering K-eight childcare with three meals a day.
I think the biggest challenge we’re all facing is the difficulty in messaging. On one hand, parks are vital right now. They’re more important than they’ve ever been. And from a professional urban parks perspective, people are realizing what we’ve been saying all along which that parks are not nice to have; parks are must-haves. Parks are essential services; our workers are essential. Our spaces are essential to physical and mental well-being, we’re seeing heavier park use, maybe than we’ve ever seen.
People are by and large complying with social distancing guidelines–not everyone–but most people are. I think the challenge is that we’re all outside complying at once. And so we’re seeing extremely heavy park use, which is creating some dilemmas and challenges. Our messaging is, “Please get outside, get some exercise, connect with nature, but don’t gather, and find your own space.” We are emphasizing social distancing through physical signage throughout our park system and on social media, including Instagram. We are considering San Francisco athletes or celebrities who are probably more effective at messaging than a single government agency might be to echo the social gathering messages that we’re articulating.
I’m really proud of my staff. We’ve got great attendance and really high morale. Our custodians have become literally public sector heroes, because without them, everything gets shutdown. So between my custodians, our recreation staff who are now in the childcare business full-time, our park workers who are keeping our parks clean and safe, and of course our 40 administrators who are all a part of our department readiness operation team, we’re doing okay.
Jayne Miller, President & CEO of Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy:
All of our facilities, as well as city facilities, programs, events and playgrounds are closed. One of the key things is incredible coordination internally in the organization, to make sure that everyone is on the same message. Staff know what decisions are being made and are updated regularly throughout the day as regulation requirements change. We also are trying to not appear tone-deaf to the pandemic but also realize that there could be COVID message burnout from organizations all over.
We are seeing the same impact that San Francisco and New York are, which is the value of parks. Fortunately, we are in a city where people really value their parks. During this time, even when it really started hitting early on, a couple weeks ago, park usage was up. Social media, pictures and, people walking the parks and being in parks really had shot up significantly. And so, we are keeping all of our parks open for walking, running, bicycling, and really also ensuring that our messages are in alignment with whatever government regulations have also been put in place.
Just as New York and San Francisco, we’re using multiple outlets to reach the public: social media, email, blogs, and photos. We’re also, working with media. Media coverage is saying that the downtown is shutdown, but the parks are open. People really get that [parks] are essential. When the schools closed, we also shifted our messaging to help parents and suggested activities that were safe for them to do with their kids.
We’re also offering virtual environmental education to help with homeschooling for kids. We have a very strong environmental education program, so we’re creating videos and webinars for parents and families to use for homeschooling. We’re taking our horticulture and forestry staff and encouraging them also to develop videos and webinars.
We’re leveraging graphics and memes to communicate, and we’ve also created a FAQ. What we’re really trying to do is leverage multiple communications channels because people absorb information differently. We’re also being very careful to not say things have been canceled but to say that things have been postponed,and that things will be rescheduled. While we are also advocating safety and saying that people’s health and wellness and safety is the number one priority and how they use those green spaces and parks and trails is really important.
We’re also paying attention to what’s going on in Florida and California with beaches and parks being closed because of the heavy influx of college students, and we’re preparing ourselves in the event that locally they want to close parks. We’re going to push against that because, as we all know, park space is critical for our own physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing.
How are you collaborating with your various public health officials, governors, county officials, mayors, and city councils?
We have our continuity of operations, so we all knew in advance what our role is. We have one point of contact, not speak to your supervisor or this person, that person. There is one email, one contact, that you can call to actually get that information as well as reasonable accommodation based on CDC guidelines about people in terms of health conditions.
We’re listening very closely to our health officials about recommended cleaning methods and what happens if someone in your organization contracts the virus. Because of HIPPA and confidentiality, we’re not disclosing the latter information with staff, but we do know when they clean a space, how much time before and after do we sanitize and disinfect the location before people can return to work.
Since the mayor declared a local state of emergency for all of California, our city is operating through an emergency operation center. I participate on a city-wide policy group with city leadership and calls every evening at 6 o’clock. Then at the department level, we have a department operation calls every day at 1:30pm and department policy group calls every day at 3:30pm. I’m also involved in our emergency childcare operation because the multi-agency effort has an emergency call every morning at 10:00am,. So I’m basically on calls all day long with some work in between, day and night.
Let’s be clear, the health department is in charge. In advising the mayor and our elected leadership and how to respond, we are supporting the health department. We are implementing direction from the health department that is intended to minimize risk, and every decision we make is about prioritizing health. I think the tension point is that, in a parks operation versus a health operation is exactly what we’ve all been talking about, which is our our deep, profound belief that we all need to maintain physical health and mental wellbeing as we work through this pandemic, and that parks are an absolutely essential part of that solution.
So, while every decision we make as an organization is about prioritizing health, we are in essentially, a support role and are following direction, using our emergency operations and Infinite Management Structure. We are taking direction from our health department and our mayor. We are asked to contribute and to offer our guidance and our opinions about different issues but the health department is the captain of this team.
Here in Pittsburgh, since we are a conservancy and are the nonprofit partner to the city, we are in a different role than Mitchell or Phil. We have a very close relationship with the city. I’m working regularly with,city staff and parks and recreation staff to make sure that we are coordinating our approach in terms of tackling issues in the parks. We also discuss how to deal with maintenance activities, programming, and what facilities and operations are closed so that it’s a seamless approach for both organizations.
The health department is the lead. If the city entered into emergency operations a week ago, last Wednesday they went into level two of emergency operations. So we are simply following and mirroring them: what the local health department, state, the governor, and mayor are doing, ensuring that we are in absolute compliance. We’re also coordinating closely with city staff around park service delivery.
What about some of the more vulnerable populations? How are your departments and our parks continuing to support them in this time of great need?
Our city’s response is focused on care and shelter for our vulnerable populations. One small example: our park leaders are working with our police department to educate our city about the importance of our social distancing guideline and not to gather.
We are a very diverse, multilingual city. One of our oldest public spaces in San Francisco is called Portsmouth Square in Chinatown, and we have a lot of monolingual Chinese speakers who live in SROs (single room occupancy living spaces), literally for whom Portsmouth Square is their only living room. There we have assigned full-time park rangers who are Chinese-speaking just to make sure people understand that this is not a time to gather. Come out, walk around, get some fresh air, but it’s not business as usual at Portsmouth Square.
The most difficult decision, frankly, that we made and another tension point with the health department, was the closing of some of these smaller playgrounds. Many of our spaces are not walkable. And you have play structures that are not lockable. We do have them in some of our neighborhoods, and they tend to be our highest density in low-income neighborhoods, small neighborhood spaces where there’s a children’s play area and a few benches and a space for some Tai chi that are really well-used. There was a decision made to close them. I was very, very reluctant to do that because in some respects, even though there is some risk in using those spaces, the people who are using them are often living in very small, cramped spaces, and so we need to be mindful about health in general, about people’s blood pressure, about people’s mental health. And so these are some of the tradeoffs.
And there are some very serious sort of equity considerations. It’s much easier for some San Franciscans to get to Crissy Field or Golden Gate Park. Some of our poorest, most underserved neighborhoods in San Francisco really have no place to go. And that for me is my biggest concern. And again, you have to stay in your lane during an emergency, and this is not my shot to call, so I am following direction.
Well, we certainly are telling those that are 70 and over, those that have health conditions, they can go out and exercise, and we tell them to use caution. But we definitely say solitary exercise only. We’re seeing some of our senior population walking their dogs as we’re going out telling people, “Social distance, please give them as much space as possible.” In rare conditions, stay home if there’s someone that they know that can volunteer to take their pet out so they don’t have to do that themselves.
Starting this weekend, we’re activating a lot of our online programming. We’ve always joked around we’re the department of fun, so my staff has gone to work, and you can think of everything from yoga to shape up, to art, that kids can be involved in. Schools are closed, so they have launched online learning. Our rangers are giving tours, live feeds in the park–we already did one for our cherry tree exhibits. It’s the spring here in New York, so people can see them. So certainly, if our senior population have access to their computers, they can certainly do that.
In addition, some of the commissioners are having an online debrief at night where we can all come together. So whether it’s Zoom or Google Hangout, it’s a way of connecting with others. And I thought it was a joke the first time; I had such a great time. It’s so much pressure here in New York that just for all of us to come together because our last conference call is about 8 o’clock, and so, around 8:30, we all get together for about an hour, and it really starts to relieve stress. You feel just from seeing someone you know and just be able to unwind for that evening.
So, we also want to share that with those that have that capability, and we now have a phone bank of people reaching out to seniors to check on them to see how they’re doing. So that’s growing a little bit over time, but some of our rec staff, since we’re closed, we’re now redeploying them so they can help with our food distribution centers or make some of those calls for those that are isolated.
In terms of the programming, start checking out New York City Parks on Twitter or Instagram, and you can start to see some amazing stuff. I wish I could tell you, but it is coming out this Friday. I saw the preview, and it is amazing, and they’re actually out there doing work. I shot one earlier today about social distancing. All of our messages talk about washing your hands, social distance, don’t touch your face. We understand people are isolated and they need to be connected, so we’re finding out that a phone, computer, and an iPad are becoming great devices and great tools to keep us all connected.
We were fortunate that over the last year that we went through a really extensive process of developing a long term, equitable investment strategy for the entire parks system, maintenance, programming, capital projects, and rehab. It’s completely about investing in all 155 parks across the city in an equitable manner. Fortunately, we had a referendum that passed and it is currently under discussion with council.
In my view, the silver lining is that this is happening right on the heels of what we have done over the last year and a half. We built consensus about reinvesting in parks that have been woefully underfunded for years and decades and how critical they are in the most vulnerable communities in the city. So, I’m looking forward to, as we get through this, implementing that plan with the City of Pittsburgh.
Webinar attendee question:
How are you handling essential and non-essential staffing?
We have disaster service workers who are directly involved in the COVID-19 response. Those people include all our recreation staff who are now operating emergency childcare centers, which includes our park rangers who are enforcing or educating about social distancing. It includes our custodians, without whom, none of it operates. And it includes the 40 people who are assigned to different branches in our own department operation center. And by the way, we do have staff that’s been activated for other roles city-wide: truck drivers bringing in RVs and shelters for quarantining people who are homeless who have had positive tests. So that’s category one, our disaster service workers.
Category two, again, our entire organization is divided by function: essential workers and nonessential workers. Essential workers are people who are required for the continuity of our operations. They include all of our park maintenance staff because our parks are open, and they’re very important assets from a infrastructure perspective. You can’t just walk away from a park or even a golf course without the asset being severely damaged. So they’re all essential. In the category of those who are essential, we do a further breakdown and say, “Who can telecommute and who can’t?” If you can telecommute, you are telecommuting, and if you can’t, you’re coming to work. And obviously we are working with our staff and educating them and providing them all the information and listening to their concerns about health and safety and making sure that they can do their work in a safe and healthy manner.
And we have nonessential workers for functions that are nonessential right now. So all of our philanthropy and partnership work, some of our volunteer operations, some of our permit operations, are nonessential right now because we’re not doing that work. If those employees have work that they can perform, they’re all home, but if some of them can do work via telecommuting, they are. If they can’t work, they are on a temporary furlough, which is a city-wide policy which allows them to continue to be paid at least through April 27th. You do have to be a permanent and regularly scheduled employee to receive that paid furlough, so I thin, some of our temporary workforce or as-needed workforce does have some challenges. Fortunately, we’re using most of them because we need a lot of custodians, as-needed park rangers, and as-needed recreation staff that are all performing, either essential or disaster, service worker functions right now.
If you’re vulnerable, if you’re in a category of people who are older than 60, you are encouraged to stay home. We are not asking people for sick notes. We’re really trying to meet people where they’re at, and we understand that there’s a lot of angst. Our attendance is good, but we certainly are being very tolerant of people’s desires to be home. If you decide to be home because either you are not feeling well, or you have a family member who’s become symptomatic, you are asked to stay home. You are supposed to use your own leave balances in that case.
As a nonprofit organization, we get no public funding for our work. Everything that we raise in our annual budget is through private fundraising. Last week, we began looking at our cashflow situation because we don’t have a regular source of revenue to keep all our operations going. We are looking at it relative to the entire 2020 calendar year so that we can remain solvent as an organization through this. And all of our staff, we were having some of our staff still out in the field, but when the city went to a level two emergency operation status, they pulled all of their field staff in parks, other than critical work, from the field. Then we had to pull all of our field work as well.
And so, most of all of our staff are working remotely, and we are in the process of reevaluating our financial situation. Our goal is to remain solvent, not only through this year, but for the long term to implement the work that we’ve been doing for 25 years. But again, because we are nonprofit and don’t receive any regular revenue from property taxes or any other tax, we are in a much different situation than other city park agencies.
In New York, we have essential and nonessential workforce. We made a decision because the epidemic is so severe here (I think we’re close to 15,000 just in New York City alone) that we wanted people to go home, so our nonessential workers are going home with pay. Now, there are others that are being called back as needed. We have our food distribution centers. Right now, New York City is serving school children meals three times a day. It’s available at their school; they can pick it up. And we’re now contemplating also delivering food to the senior population. But both essential and nonessential at this time are all being compensated.
Webinar attendee question:
What are the short-term and long-term budget implications of COVID-19 on your organizations?
They’re both very dire. Short term is a little bit less so because we operate on a July 1 to June 30 fiscal year, so we’re in March, our fourth quarter. But we will earn zero revenue through June 30. Zero. That has an impact to us of about 20 million dollars. Our annual operating budget is around 200 million dollars, and it comes from three sources, all of which are quite vulnerable now. One, earned revenue where again, we’ve been earning through March, but frankly, we have tons of small businesses in our parks that are operating concessions that are using March revenue to pay February’s rent or minimum annual guarantees. We’re really getting zero from February through June 30. No permits, no special events, and our parking garages are essentially closed. All of our concessions are closed. We have no recreation program fees, none of it.
I anticipate, even when we are cleared to resume normal operations, that it’s going to take a long time for businesses to come back. We’re going to lose some, and our political process is very difficult for replacing them. Everybody’s got an opinion about what kind of coffee they want served in their parks. So right now, it’s zero, and I think we’re going to be below budget for a long time.
For the other two sources, we receive something called an open space fund allocation, which is a share of the city’s allocation of state property tax revenues. We receive two and half cents for every $100 of state property tax, and there is no property being bought and sold right now. So transfer taxes, which is our piece of that, are going to be low. I’m worried about our open space funding. And then the city’s general fund, that we like to call ” the money we begged for.” We a transportation agency that has just stopped running its train system. We have a number of city agencies whose resources are being stretched. So we have a three-month lookout which, how I got to the $20 million number but, I think that the budget consequences, unfortunately, are going to be dire for a long time.
I want to be careful not to make any news. We’re getting information from a budget office about the impact. I do know the governor said for the state of New York, fighting this virus could cost us as much as $15 billion. But we’re very concerned; we’re going through budget exercises. In fact this morning, our partners that rely on fundraising and events, we told them that you really can’t make any purchases right now, but this is important for them to sustain themselves. We’re very concerned what this means for our partners. They cannot, they basically focus on earned revenue and galas and fundraisers, but right now everything’s on hold. So we don’t know the state of our partners.
There’s so much we don’t know, but we’ve started some very serious and dire budget exercises this morning. It’s not going to look good in the short term. We’ll see what happens in the long term, but for the short term, we’re very, very concerned. I’m sure all of us are in the midst of hiring our seasonals for the summer, and there’s some definite revenue issues happening right now, so we’re trying to work that out. It is serious and dire, but again New York City, our scale, our budgets is about 580 million. Right now, we’re looking at our construction and contracts and are just making day-by-day decisions with our budget office. But things right now are not looking good.
Webinar attendee question:
How are you handling both seasonal hires and volunteers?
Yeah, so great question. Fortunately we have a number of full-time, vacant positions that we have put on hold. We have some part-time staff onboard right now for critical parts of our organization. We have some critical positions that are for our summer seasonal, spring seasonal positions that we’re posting, so when we are able to be up and running, we can get those staff on board, but we’re not doing any hiring right now. We’re just positioning ourselves so that when we are ready to roll our capital projects, our seasonal hiring, our program summer camps, and activities, everything is ready to go and we’re not delayed when we’re back up and running. But we’re not hiring, just getting ourselves positioned and ready go. Again, both from a realistic perspective that we don’t know how long this is going to last, but also from a financial perspective to minimize our losses and ensure as much as we can, we’re in the strongest financial position we can be coming out of this. We’ve also ceased all volunteer activities as well for safety considerations.
We’re not allowing any volunteer programs to go forward. In terms of seasonals, right now, we’re taking a pause. We’re waiting for the budget office for guidance about moving forward with seasonals.
Prior to that decision to pause, we were doing social distancing interviews in all of our borough offices. But for now, it’s on pause until we can make a determination about what’s going to happen. And like I said, it’s changing literally day to day.
For us, it’s a little different because we’re a four-season operation, so we don’t really have seasonals. We do staff up with a lot of young people during the summer and have a little bit more temp hiring. So we have a little bit of a peak hiring cycle during the summer because we operate about 85 summer camps and a family camp up in the Sierras that we need to staff. So a lot of our rec staff are are sort-of temporary. Our model is that we have a core permanent staff and then those who do programming are actually, temporary employees, and they get paid while they program. So a lot of them are being used now for this emergency childcare operation.
We just learned while I was on this call that all our school districts in the Bay Area counties are now going to be closed through May 1st. The school year ends for us out here around the third week of May, and we start our summer camp program the first week of June. So we don’t know what that status of our summer camp program is yet. We don’t know what the status of our family camp, [which could affect] 150 families, about 500 people a week up in the Sierras in this beautiful location. So it’s a little bit of wait and see.
We are hiring. We are in the middle of a custodial release, which is sort of an as-needed or a peak use of custodians. We simply cannot have enough custodians right now. So that’s been our primary hiring focus, and our youth workers have gone through an interview cycle, which is really more for them, an educational experience of interviewing. I think most of that has happened, and some of it did happen, since the shelter at home order, so we were using a socially distant interview strategy, some virtual interviews, and some spacing. No volunteer programs right now.
Thank you to Nancy Goldenberg, Mitchell Silver, Jayne Miller, and Phil Ginsburg for joining us on short notice and for sharing their insights during this challenging time. Subscribe to our email list to be the first to know about future webinars on COVID-19 and our parks and for our regular webinar series. Please also consider joining or renewing your membership in City Parks Alliance.