Residents find outdoor refuge in city parks, but Westover pool and other rec facilities’ reopening remain uncertain

A man walks on one of the paths in Hillandale Park in Harrisonburg, Va.

Photos and article by Tristan Lorei, contributor

Shut out from meeting up with friends or mingling in public, many Harrisonburg residents have escaped the confines of life in a pandemic by taking a walk, jog or bike ride — or even having a round of frisbee golf — at one of the city’s parks. 

And while the Parks and Recreation Department has kept open access to trails and fields on its properties, its programming has shifted online and other oft-used facilities, such as the Westover skatepark and all the parks’ playground equipment, remained locked or roped off. The Parks and Recreation department is also unsure as to how and when certain facilities will open up, including the Westover pool. Parks and Rec employees plan on discussing that in meetings this week. 

“We just want people to know that our parks are still open and a lot of people are taking advantage of that,” said Michael Parks, Harrisonburg city’s communications director. “We just ask everyone to maintain the social distancing and wear masks when you’re out. But the walking trails are open, the green spaces are open, there’s still a number of ways for you to engage with Parks and Rec and we’ll have some more activities and events on our Facebook page as those get finished so there’ll be more going up every day.”

The renovations scheduled to be done on Purcell Park may have to be delayed due to possible budget shortages caused by the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the public limitations has given the Parks and Rec Department an opportunity to complete projects, such as aerating the greens at Heritage Oaks Golf Course. That would have caused maintenance to shut down a couple holes at a time during a normal spring. Other parks improvement jobs, such as a replacement of Purcell Park’s castle playground, could potentially get halted if projected revenue shortages force the city council to scale back the budget. The city council will continue budget talks at Tuesday’s meeting.  

“We’re still in the process of trying to figure [the budget] out because we don’t have a firm grasp on what those revenue shortfalls are going to look like,” Parks said. “Those come in kind of a month behind when they actually occur so we do not have the financial numbers for April yet. So we won’t have those for another couple of weeks. So it’s hard for us to make a lot of hard and fast decisions on projects and budgets for the upcoming fiscal year until we see what some of those numbers are going to look like.” 

The skate park in Westover Park is one of the many facilities closed to the public until further notice.
Some normally busy parts of Westover Park have been fairly empty since the closing of its skate park and playground.

A trip to any park shows that people are not hesitating to get outside and use the trails, green spaces and warm weather — people like Sarah Powell, her husband, Evan, and brother-in-law, Ethan. One day last week, they took advantage of a sunny, warm spring afternoon at Hillandale Park. 

“We played some wiffle ball and I’m going paint for my Etsy shop and they’re going to relax in hammocks,” said Powell. “It’s really nice, we’re all cooped up inside and getting kind of stir crazy, but we can still kind of social distance and spread out in the park.”

Ethan Powell attaches his hammock to the tree with his brother Evan.
Sarah Powell sits on a blanket in the field of Hillandale Park painting for her Etsy shop.

For community members unable to get outside or still searching for ways to stay active, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department has virtual outreach programs posted daily on its Facebook page. Classes include the city’s maintenance department’s “how-to” courses as part of “Maintenance Mondays,” which have covered tips for lawn mowing and mower maintenance, as well as how to take soil samples and changing HVAC filters at home.

The regular “50 and Wiser” class aims to help senior citizens remain active. And interval fitness classes air on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 

Along with classes, the department produces other programs, such as family story time which is normally hosted in-person through childcare and preschool programs. Others include the sidewalk chalk art challenge and a virtual bike tour through the park’s bike trails hosted by Matt Little, the Special Events Coordinator. Many of these events and classes have generated more than a thousand views, said Brittany Clem, the marketing and special projects coordinator for Parks and Recreation. 

“Although a challenging time, Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation has taken an opportunity to better get to know the community through our social media channels,” Clem said. “This time not only allows for the department to analyze and enhance existing programs, programs that meet in person in our facilities, but also allows for the department to be creative, utilize technology to reach the community, expand existing programs by making them available online, create new online programs, and also better reach the portion of our community that enjoys communicating online.”

While the department has produced a lot of content, some annual events were cancelled such as the Easter Egg Hunt. 

Instead, Lynn Hoy, the Parks and Recreation senior services coordinator, organized a visit to local senior care facilities with the Easter Bunny to wave through the windows at the residents. 

The playgrounds in the parks around Harrisonburg, like this one in Westover park, have been taped off to the public to ensure no-one uses them.

Because the stay-at-home and social distancing orders meant the cancellation of spring sports, the athletics division staff is offering e-sports opportunities. 

The scheduling of reopenings and other projects depends on whether Governor Ralph Northam continues his stay-at-home order until June 10 as scheduled, cancels or extends it. Parks said playgrounds and other closed facilities will stay off-limits until the order is lifted. But the city also will consider the number of COVID-19 cases locally before determining whether to reopen those facilities, Parks said. 

The public pool raises its own challenges in regards to being reopened this summer that will be discussed in meetings this week by the Parks and Recreation department.

The public pool located in Westover Park has its own set of challenges in regards to reopening. Parks said while city officials haven’t begun discussions yet as to the precautions and steps they will be taking to reopen, he said those conversations are expected to begin this week. Reopening the pool and other facilities will heavily depend on whether or not the number of positive cases in the area drops. 

“We know there are some things we are probably going to have to take into consideration when we do reopen,” Parks said. “Specifically, measures to kind of require social distancing at facilities such as the pool and other locations. We are going to be talking about that but we haven’t had those formal conversations yet because we’re not close at this point to opening city facilities. It’s going to take a while before we’re able to move in that direction.”

Until the stay-at-home order is lifted and the Parks and Recreation department is able to reopen their closed facilities to the public, Parks said he encourages people to visit the green spaces that remain open.

John Mansfield walks his dog in Purcell Park on a warm evening.

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