By Bridget Manley, publisher
The start of summer 2021 might not look like “normal” at parks around Harrisonburg, but city officials say more amenities are reopening. And playgrounds and pools, though not as crowded as they once were, will start to resemble pre-pandemic operations.
First, good news for parents and children: most city playgrounds have reopened. Harrisonburg made that call in mid-March to reopen playgrounds in city parks, which were closed because of COVID-19 for a year.
Harrisonburg operates 19 city parks, including the “A Dream Come True” playground, and officials are being conservative about when and how to reopen parks and different areas and features within each park but have to keep up with changing guidance from the Virginia Department of Health.
“It’s an evolving process,” said Brian Mancini, acting director of Parks and Recreation. “We would love to be able to get back to normal.”
Over the last year, many residents took to the parks to bike, walk, picnic, geocache and be in the only other place allowed besides their own four walls.
“It’s awesome, and it’s very frustrating at the same time,” Mancini said. “We would love to have everything wide open. Using our parks in a non-COVID world at the rate we are using them now —it would have been just awesome.”
A Dream Come True Playground
For Harrisonburg’s Parks and Recreation Department, it posed quite a challenge because not all of the park’s features, like playgrounds, could be open.
The parks department is making a plan to re-open one of the city’s most popular attractions for families and children, “A Dream Come True” playground, but is still trying to account for changing guidelines.
“I can’t give you a date quite yet, but it is imminent,” Mancini said. “Now, in these times, imminent could mean anywhere from a couple weeks to maybe a month or so.”
“A Dream Come True” playground has been closed to the public sind March 2020 and hasn’t opened yet because of the amount of people who frequent the playground, Mancini said.
“It’s a destination park,” Mancini explained. Parents from all over the Valley come to the playground because of its size, varied play spaces and accessible and inclusive equipment for all children. Pre-pandemic it could attract hundreds of children in a day. Schools take fieldtrips to it.
“We counted over 500 people there one day,” Mancini said.
Mancini noted that when there are hundreds of kids outside, there are lots of people in the bathrooms, and it could create conditions for COVID to spread. That has made it hard for the city to reopen.
Westover Park’s pool, skate park and disc golf course
Unlike many municipal pools, Westover Pool stayed open throughout the pandemic. Just like last year, the pool will start the summer season with a reservation-only system. The city will begin taking reservations for people to use the pool starting next week (May 24).
The reservations will be for swim lessons, lap lane swimming, and recreational swimming.
The Olympic-sized pool will be sectioned off in quadrants, and city residents can reserve the quadrants. A family or group of up to ten people will be allowed to stay inside the quadrant and swim for an hour and a half.
“They are actually pretty big quadrants because the pool is so big,” Mancini said. “They are actually nice sized quadrants.”
Residents can still purchase summer passes, and reservations will be given first to pass holders.
Mancini said as the Virginia Department of Health issues additional guidelines, he hopes the pool will be back to a more “normal” swim season. While he foresees restrictions on the total amount of people who will be allowed to enter the pool area at one time, the goal is to open the pools for all swimming.
The splash pad at Westover will be the last to open, Mancini said. Splash pads were not included in the last round of guidance the state issued, and parks officials don’t expect it to be open at the start of the season.
“When we go back to ‘normal’ — normal with restrictions on the number of people to go into the pool area — then the splash pad would go back to normal at that time,” Mancini said.
Because of the number of people allowed in the pool area at one time, the pool bathrooms are also sparsely populated. The locker rooms are not in service yet.
Mancini said disc golf at Westover has become more popular in the last year, and he’s excited to see people using the park’s course more than ever before.
Another popular attraction is Westover’s skate park. But winter weather cracked the ramps.
“The skate park is so old, when that surface freezes and thaws over the winter, the concrete separates and cracks,” Mancini said.
The city has fixed the concrete in the skate park, and it is now open and operational.
“It’s unbelievable what happened during the pandemic when people rediscovered getting back to the parks,” Mancini said. “The skate park was unbelievably crowded, and the disc golf course has been used more than it’s ever been used.”
City recreational sports
Spring sports — such as swimming, little league and soccer — resumed this spring, but the city took a cautious approach.
The Parks and Recreation Department required temperature checks of players before games and practices, and parents weren’t allowed to watch from the sidelines. Instead, they were asked to sit in their cars.
Mancini said the city had to come up with a plan over the winter to keep players safe during spring sports. The plans were “rigorously thought through” and approved by city fire and EMS departments and were in line with standards that high school and college programs used, he said.
“We put the plan in place right about the time that soccer started,” Mancini said. “When it started, some restrictions elsewhere started to loosen, and they started to loosen in high school and started to loosen in college.”
Mancini said some restrictions have been loosened. For instance, parents are allowed on the sidelines to watch practices and games. Mask requirements remain in place.
Patience in the parks
Mancini said city officials are keeping with guidelines as they change, and they want residents to enjoy the city’s green spaces — but safely. They are also dealing with staff shortages and are working to keep the pools, playgrounds and bathrooms safe and clean.
“We want people to use our parks,” Mancini said. “We know that’s one of the safest places to be — outdoors. We just ask people to stay patient with us. Sometimes I think people think we don’t want amenities open, and that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
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