If any positives can emerge from a pandemic, one might be the further realization of just how important the athletics, fitness and recreation industries are to our collective physical and mental wellbeing. Most professionals were more than willing to shutter their storefronts and sacrifice entire playing seasons as the nation came to grips with COVID-19, but there's no denying the deep sense of loss inherent to that process — feelings exacerbated by the months of forced inactivity and isolation that followed.
It's no wonder the desire to get back to business is so strong.
Now comes the challenging work of reopening. With renewed commitment to customer service and care, industry leaders are re-examining the operational status quo like never before — and finding safer ways to deliver the most coveted of end products: good health.
These pages represent an overview of progress being made by organizations and individuals alike during this unpredictable period of transition in athletics, fitness and recreation.
As public parks and rec departments think about reopening, they're charged with doing so for an incredibly diverse range of people, facilities and programming.
"Typically we will have participants aged zero through 99," says Chris Nunes, director of Parks and Recreation for The Woodlands Township about 30 miles north of Houston, Texas. "In our area we have 150 parks, and we've had to educate ourselves on how people are going to fish with social distancing requirements in place. How are people going to play tennis, pickleball, basketball? Fill in the blank, we have that type of service."
Houston also has an immensely popular boat house, two public rec centers, an adventure course, and 14 pools. As a result, Nunes and his staff have had to rely on advice from an equally diverse body of resources, from trade publications to local, state and federal authorities, as well as "nearly every sport governing body imaginable."
On top of all the facilities, Nunes' department is also in charge of special events, such as Fourth of July fireworks, which typically draw 150,000 people to a community park. Nunes says his team went so far as to consider the idea of replacing the usual fireworks display with boxes of activities — sparklers, games and water balloons — that could be delivered to every cul-de-sac and neighborhood in the city.
"It's really forced us to think through everything we do, why we do it, and how do we do it within these limitations," Nunes says.
Nunes has been asking his staff to consider all possibilities going forward, noting that social distancing requirements could be in place for anywhere from six months to a year, if not more.
Aquatics has been top of mind given staffing concerns moving forward. The parks department made the conscious decision not to train lifeguards this year due to social distancing requirements, as that training requires a lot of close contact between trainees and their instructors.
"Well, what happens if the social distancing requirements are still in effect, what do we do next year?" Nunes asks. "We had enough lifeguards from last year for this year that we were able to open seven of our 14 pools. But what are we going to do if those social distancing requirements are still in play? These are the kinds of things I'm asking my staff to start thinking about now."
As Nunes begins thinking about the road forward, he's working on a proclamation to the city board that will communicate the value of parks and public spaces, which the pandemic has only highlighted as people of all walks of life depended on outdoor spaces to clear their head and breath some fresh air.
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"Frederick Law Olmstead, one of the founders of landscape architecture, actually talks about how these places are for all — truly, rich or poor, these places are for everyone," Nunes says. "And I think that's one of the things I hope we realize coming out of all this."
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Public Parks and Rec resumes serving diverse populations." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.