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While Governor Okays Pools/Playgrounds, Park Departments Struggle To Reopen


Governor Andrew Cuomo, this week, gave local governments clearance to reopen playgrounds and pools once proper plans are in place. But several area department heads admit they're scrambling to form a strategy, and at least one feels the window of opportunity to open pools for the summer season may have already closed.

Recreational facilities are slated to reopen under Phase Four of New York Forward, the incremental strategy put forth by the Cuomo Administration to restore businesses and institutions that were closed in March as part of NY on PAUSE. On Thursday, the governor announced he'll let local governments decide when to reopen playgrounds and pools, urging them to follow updated COVID-19 case data while doing so.

John Jaroszewski, General Crew Chief for the Town of Cheektowaga Parks Department, told WBFO he's awaiting further guidance. But he fears the time to properly open the town's pools may have already passed. Among his concerns, hiring life guards. Most, he explains, are college students home for the summer but with facilities closed, he expects most candidates have already found other summer jobs.

"It's not just turning the valve on and filling the pool. There's a lot of behind the logistics behind the scenes that happen and people don't understand," Jaroszewski said. "It's not just turning a door lock and opening a door. There's a lot of logistics that go behind the scenes, turning the water on turning off, draining, lights, blowing lines, electric issues, panel issues, filter issues, chemicals and stuff like that."

There's also the issue of staffing. Given the economic shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, town governments' budgets have taken hits as the result of lost sales and mortgage tax revenues.

Bill Conrad, a Town of Tonawanda councilman who also chairs the town's Youth, Parks and Recreation Department, told WBFO they anticipate opening just one of their pool facilities this summer, at Lincoln Park, by the end of June.

"All of those forms of revenues that about half of the town budget relies on dried up for three months and we're going to have to make some really difficult decisions," he said.

In the City of Buffalo, pools normally open July 1. Public Works Commissioner Michael Finn explained the challenge is determining how to enforce physical distancing. He suggests it may be possible to open splash pads, but concerns at public pools include the contained space and crowding in staging areas.

Shelter rentals in Buffalo parks will be available to groups of 25 people or fewer, but other parks facilities may remain closed a while longer.

"The short answer for a lot of our facilities - basketball courts, playgrounds - given the density of the use in the city, we're feeling that a lot of the things won't be able to open until the six-foot social distancing is is lifted or relieved in in some way," Finn said. "However, we're going to continue looking at all the uses of our facilities and the need for recreation and providing as many opportunities as we can."

Conrad, meanwhile, says in the Town of Tonawanda they have not closed playground facilities but warn users of the risks.

"We didn't really close our playgrounds. We just put warning signs up with the playground installations, and warn them that this could be contaminated, play at your own risk, and so on," he said. "We never took down our basketball courts. We never really had any large groups playing basketball to do that. So the neighborhood kids can come up there with a father, mother or sister, whatever, and shoot some hoops. So our playground, I guess, from the onset had been open."

In Cheektowaga, Jaroszewski is also awaiting guidance on how to enforce safety measures at playgrounds.

"I have two big playgrounds in Stiglmeier Park. If the guidelines are that I have to disinfect it twice a day, I don't know if that's feasible," he said. "One body isn't going to clean the one playground I have here. It's that big."