Parks & Rec keeps up the paceDec 30, 2020 11:28AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
From archery to Zumba, the Newark Parks & Recreation Department is pushing forward with as many activities as feasible in this time of coronavirus restrictions. Plus it’s adding virtual ones and looking to add programming to fill new unmet needs.
“We’re still providing community activities that build a feel-good feeling,” said Joe Spadafino, department director since 2016 and a staff member since 1996. “We’re doing the things we know the community loves and wants to be part of, and we’re creating new events that will bring the community together.”
The department’s Fall 2020 Activity Guide lists about 100 activities, following pages of info on the cleaning, temperature checks, face coverings, social distancing and other measures combatting the virus. There’s also key information about registration: The city in August switched to a new system, and everyone needs to create new accounts. Details: www.newarkde.gov/play.
“We spent months developing a plan for everyone to be safe,” Paula Ennis, the department’s assistant director, explained.
The “everyone” includes not just the participants, but the 10 full-time staff members, the 30 part-timers and the volunteers who have given thousands of hours to make it all happen with sports and aquatics, fitness, visual and performing arts and special interest programs – and the parks themselves.
“We started planning soon after the shutdown in mid-March,” Spadafino said. “It’s been a waiting games, waiting for regulations from Delaware Department of Health and Social Services and waiting for the phases.”
Delaware is using three phases for restrictions: Phase 1 has significant community spread of coronavirus. Phase 2 has minimal to moderate spread. Phase 3 has minimal spread. New cases per 100,000 people, the percentage of positive test results and average daily hospitalizations per 100,000 people are used to create an overall rating, then assigned a phase.
Adjusting to the guidelines
Although recreational programs have been limited in various ways, park usage has soared.
Newark has 36 parks, 17 miles of trails and more than 650 acres of parkland and open space. “People have cabin fever,” Spadafino said. “And these are places that they can get out and exercise. We’re seeing more cars in the parking lots and a lot more trash. We’re going from once a week trash pickups to two or three times a week.”
They decided to plan programming the rest of the year as best as they could, with the goal of issuing a supplement to the seasonal schedule in October, when they’ve developed “better ways to do things” and as regulations evolve.
They’re also working with the Christina School District to provide child care for parents who are working but their children are in virtual classes. “We need to fit the pieces in that puzzle,” Ennis said. “Lots of kids don’t have child care.”
The department in the past organized before- and after-care at Downes and West Park Place elementary schools for 120 children who attend those schools, but the district started the school year on Sept. 8 with remote learning and its buildings closed to outside groups.
By the end of June, the department has started summer programs, a few weeks later than usual. “People said ‘We were wondering how you could pull this off, and it worked great,’” Spadafino said. “We were getting support. We were getting disappointment. But most people understood.”
The toughest early part, Ennis said, was getting all the staff on board, getting them to understand the rules and be early role models as well. Some staff members and some families who have participated before chose not to get involved, she added.
So what’s changed?
Recreational programs have had their capacity reduced to allow for social distancing.
Health surveys are requested, involving temperature checks and exposure to those with coronavirus.
Participants are asked to bring some personal equipment, such as yoga mats.
For adult dance classes, partners need to be from the same household, as contrasted to past years, in which participants could switch partners during class.
Some programs have gone virtual, including yoga, Zumba and sketch comedy.“Even if you are not comfortable out in public, there are many classes and programs that you can now enjoy from the comfort of your own home,” the department writes on its Facebook page. Some new programs are virtual, including a Beau Biden Foundation seminar on child predators, seminars on essential oils and the Stroller Social Club, a get-together at the Newark Reservoir for parents and their young children.
And one sold-out program occurred in the comfort of families’ cars. “It was great!” Jessica Cody wrote on Facebook about the annual pop-up drive-in movie in July. “I can’t wait until next time!”
The Fall Community Cleanup is planned to continue in mid-October. As one earlier invitation reads: “Grab your family and friends and come make Newark beautiful.”
Of course, not every program could be adapted.
Disappointing cancelations, revised offerings
One prominent cancelation was Community Day, run with the University of Delaware and the Christina School District and unifying the city’s town and gown parts for a September Sunday. Another was the Halloween parade, a tradition for 75 years, drawing 2,000 to march and 10,000 to watch.
They were just too popular, the logistical challenges unsurmountable, Spadafino said.
That said, department is looking to host a virtual Halloween parade on its Facebook page for costumed participants and antique vehicles.
Winterfest – which features holiday entertainment, roasting chestnuts, caroling, a tree lighting and ice carving demonstrations – “will not be held this year in the usual format,” its official webpage says. Again, there are too many people for social distancing while enjoying some holiday cheer. Officials are planning to livestream a tree lighting and are working on other elements.
The Snack with Santa and Santa’s Secret Shoppe is still on the department calendar, with plans to require signups and limit participation. Ditto for the Halloween party.
The Turkey Trot, a tradition the weekend before Thanksgiving, is going virtual, with participants asked to log their own 5K or 10K for the Trot’s T-shirts.
The 34th annual Thanksgiving Day breakfast is being rethought, maybe becoming a drive-through event. The thought still counts, but the mission to “create a warm and caring atmosphere among community members, older adults and area students who are unable to share the holiday with family members or a companion” is diminished.
“When we first started [coronavirus restrictions] people were hesitant. Now they know what to do to be safe,” Spadafino said. “We’ve ben a big part of allowing them to be active and create memories. We’re glad to do so.”
All photos courtesy of Newark Parks & Recreation Department.