Denver’s 30 recreation centers — which closed as the coronavirus pandemic hit the city in March — will remain shuttered until mid-April at the earliest while the short-staffed Parks and Recreation Department pivots its resources, city officials have told The Denver Post.
Barring an immediate drop in COVID-19 cases, a vaccine or some other dramatic change, safely opening the city’s recreation centers isn’t a feasible option, said John Martinez, deputy executive director of recreation.
Still, as the weather turns colder and cooped-up Denverites look for things to do, the department will work to provide new options, he said.
“We’re going to beef up our virtual programming,” Martinez said. “Our goal is to keep people safe. The last thing we want to do is go too fast and then we have to take steps backwards.”
With 30 recreation centers — each with different layouts, facilities and staffing — it’s a logistical nightmare to open them and still be able to prevent further spread of the virus, said Parks and Recreation spokesperson Cyndi Karvaski. Until the department can figure that out or until the virus no longer presents such a substantial threat, the buildings must remain closed.
“It’s very difficult to have all this signage, physical distancing, janitorial service,” Karvaski said. “How we clean the equipment after each use? There’s just so many people.”
However, the department has been able to shift some of its resources outside, where physical distancing is much easier, and online, Karvaski said. Those programs — mostly arts- or fitness-related — are well suited for children and older adults, the recreation centers’ largest target demographics.
Some of the programs are conducted live, while videos for others are posted online and through the department’s social media channels so patrons can participate on their own time.
Online programming includes teaching children to imagine themselves as superheroes and to create their own super challenges to accomplish, drawing and dancing lessons and workout videos for active older adults.
The Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver has also partnered with the remote learning center at the Athmar Recreation Center in Ruby Hill for some of that online programming, spokesperson Annie Zdrojewski said.
In addition, outdoor programs include youth sports camps at Valverde, Swansea and Parkfield Lake parks and the Lowry Sports Complex, Karvaski said.
A full list of available programs can be found online at denvergov.org/recreation.
As the weather turns colder and outdoor options become less viable, Martinez said he wants to shift even further online to give folks something to do this winter. About 3,500 patrons have participated in the department’s online programs since July — a far cry from the 40,000 patrons that used just the Carla Madison Recreation Center on East Colfax each month, Martinez acknowledged.
About 2.5 million people use the city’s recreation centers in a normal year, Karvaski said.
It’s not just the number of patrons that is dwindling, the department’s staff also has taken a hit during the pandemic as well.
Typically Martinez said his section of the department has about 1,400 employees, mostly seasonal or part-time employees that do anything from teaching yoga to cutting the grass. But with the centers closed and the city hurting for cash, part timers and seasonal employees were either furloughed or not called in to work, he said.
Now, Martinez said, he has just 137 full-time employees, many of whom have taken on different responsibilities to meet the city’s needs.
“They’re helping with emergency child care operations, (homeless) shelter support, shelter transportation,” he said. “We have 15 meal sites where we were handing out meals to youth, delivering meals for homeless shelters, working our four learning labs, virtual programming.”
Too few staff members remain to maintain normal park operations, Karvaski said.
“We’re not able to mow as frequently; we’re not watering as frequently; we’re not picking up trash as frequently,” she said.
While the department will continue to pivot its services as staffing and funding allows, these realities appear to be the new normal, at least for the foreseeable future, Martinez said.
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