An eerie quiet has settled over Martha’s Park this summer.
News Herald reporters coming into the newsroom normally hear the laughter and cheers of children on the playground equipment and running through the splash pad, but this year, that hasn’t been the case.
Instead, caution tape has blocked off the entrance since at least the end of March as Gov. Roy Cooper ordered many things, including playgrounds, to close because of COVID-19.
City Parks and Recreation Director Rob Winkler said, in the 27 years he’s worked at some capacity in parks and recreation, he’s never experienced anything like this — and never expected to experience anything like it either.
And it’s tough not being able to see people enjoy the recreational resources the city has available.
“You spend your life and every day thinking of ways to get the citizens to utilize programs and make their quality of life better and you work and work and you put it out there and you think you’ve got a great product, and you can’t use it,” Winkler said. “It’s challenging.”
The city recently had state-of-the-art heating and air systems installed at Mountain View and Collett Street recreation centers, refinished part of the floor at Mountain View and sanded and refinished the floor in the gym at the Collett Street Recreation Center. Winkler said that floor is probably in the best shape it’s ever seen, but no one is getting to use it.
“It’s discouraging,” Winkler said. “This is what, myself and my staff, this is what we do. This is what we love to do.”
Some things have been able to reopen, like the Collett Street Pool, but playground equipment remains closed. While the splash pads the city has at Martha’s Park and MLK Jr. Park theoretically could reopen, there’s no way that could happen unless the parks were staffed to make sure kids weren’t playing on the playground equipment to follow the governor’s order.
Winkler said that is something the city has considered, but there are a few things that make that decision difficult.
For one thing, the city is just now able to bring part-time parks and recreation employees back. He said the department lost a lot of part-time employees because of COVID-19, and part-time employees would be who expects the city would rely on for staffing parks while the splash pads are open.
“With everything going on, we’ve had to restrict those numbers,” Winkler said. “We’re just now starting to bring some back with the opening of the pool and mainly with maintenance right now.”
It’s also difficult to make programming plans when information about what will be open and what will be closed changes quickly. He said he thinks the department will re-evaluate once the governor releases additional guidance for reopening ahead of the current order’s July 17 expiration.
“The last thing we want to do is to bring folks in and hire them, then have to turn around and let them go,” Winkler said. “Because when we need them, to bring them back, they’re going to be working in other places then.”
Waiting on guidance has been the hardest part of planning for parks and recreation officials, he said.
“That’s been the toughest part of our job the past 4 or 5 months has been, the information that we get changes and it’s difficult for us to evaluate and put something in place,” Winkler said. “Programming takes time. It’s not like you can just do something in a weekend. We have to plan for it, and then when you plan for it to get it going and the guidelines come out that are different or a setback to what you’ve been planning for, you have to put them on hold again.”
He said he is proud of his department for how it has managed to develop programming that allows for some fun even under the restrictions COVID-19 has caused for everyone.
“I think we’re proving that we can do some things and we have been and we’ve been doing them safely,” Winkler said.
He spoke to Saturday’s fireworks display, how people were able to spread out for miles and see the display from their cars or some even from the comfort of their homes.
“I think it really worked well and it showed that, if you are responsible, you can still have some safe programs,” Winkler said.
That’s not the only programming parks and recreation has offered. Swimming pools are open to some capacity, and it’s looking like the city is going to be able to offer some 7- and 8-year-old baseball with limited numbers on teams and keeping kids separated from each other. Plus, the city’s Greenway system and other open park spaces offer options for getting outside.
“We want to try to progress off of them and hopefully, when the governor comes out, we can do some more, but if not, we’ll push forward with what we can in the guidelines and offer what we can for our citizens,” Winkler said.
One thing that has been discouraging is that senior programming hasn’t been able to continue, but he’s looking forward to working with staff to see if they can get something virtual going to better serve that group.
“I just wish that they could be involved more because I know how important our senior activities are up here,” Winkler said.
He hopes that soon, parks will be able to open at full capacity soon.
“You’re used to the laughter and the noise, that’s the norm for us,” Winkler said. “To not be able to hear that on a daily basis ... it’s really different, that’s all I can say.”
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