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Events and Programs: A COVID-19 Community Conundrum

April 23, 2020  by  Laura Crandall
Category:  Programs COVID-19

Events and Programs: A COVID-19 Community Conundrum

One of the many pressing issues jurisdictions are facing is what to do about upcoming community events and recreation programs in the midst of continuing uncertainty. Parks and recreation professionals from around the state took part in a brief survey about upcoming summer events and answered questions by phone about how they intend to staff and plan community events this year. We share those results here, along with information collected by Sound Cities Association (SCA), Washington Recreation & Park Association (WRPA), and the Tri-County Park Directors.

Questions Asked

Has the city postponed, cancelled, or rescheduled any events that take place after May 4?

Out of 28 jurisdictions:

  • 17 had cancelled events after May 4
  • 4 had not cancelled any event
  • 7 had not yet decided

Of those that cancelled events, 14 gave us information on how far out they cancelled events:

  • 1 jurisdiction cancelled through May
  • 2 cancelled through June
  • 4 cancelled through July
  • 6 cancelled through August
  • 1 jurisdiction had cancelled an October event

City, third-party, and multi-party events alike had been cancelled rather than postponed.

Who/what groups were involved in the decision?

The answers here were wide-ranging, but most involved a group that included staff and the event organizers.

What were the major factors in the decision?

Public health and safety were top factors in cancellations, but before arriving at that conclusion, parks staff and leadership discussed whether they could create a safe environment that included physical distancing, hand washing stations, and adequate staffing. For example, even though farmers markets are considered essential businesses that are allowed to operate, the Sammamish City Council thoroughly discussed whether and how they might keep physical distancing guidelines; and ultimately, they voted to cancel the market. Other cities have cancelled their farmers markets as well, and those that are opening their markets have changed the layout and eliminated performances and activities to reduce gathering and lingering.

Staffing and planning summer camps drove decisions as well. For those cities that were looking at plans to run some day camps or other programs later in the season, some questioned whether a part-time seasonal job would attract someone receiving unemployment. Hiring freezes and layoffs created further uncertainty, as in some cases there were not enough staff to plan camps and programs for later in the season.

Are you accepting special events permits?

Out of nine jurisdictions answering this question, four were still taking permits and five were not. One city was taking permits — but not payments — and did not plan to take payments until staff were back in the office. In doing so, they wanted to avoid the refund-processing issues they have had in the past.

Looking ahead, differently

Whenever the Stay Home - Stay Healthy proclamation is lifted, putting on events and programs may happen in reverse order: Since large gatherings were banned first, they may be last to return. Local governments may consider opening options that still allow attendees to maintain physical distance, such as access to parks, trails, and open spaces; certain recreation and sports opportunities; and children’s camps and programs with limited enrollment. The survey and conversations with staff around the state have yielded points to consider when weighing cancellation or postponement and for planning to reopen and restart parks and rec events and programs.

Plan to accommodate physical distancing

One city is looking at restructuring their “See you in the Park” event series for fewer people per event but may increase the number of events.

Consider community needs at this time

Which of your programs are a priority to the community and why?

Take your plans as far as you can without additional cost

Staffing came up as a concern if programs were postponed. One option to plan for tentative events or programs is to interview candidates with the intent of putting together your team, right up until the point of offering candidates a job. Spokane County is interviewing candidates and making hiring decisions for their aquatics programs but waiting to begin paperwork and onboarding until later when they know more. The rest of the county is under a hiring freeze, but if pools open, these programs may not be subject to the freeze and county staff are planning as if they will open.

Analyze resources, both human and capital

Budgets have been cut and will continue to be. Hiring freezes are in place, furloughs are continuing, and some are turning into layoffs. Your reinstatement of programs and people may mean smaller class sizes, but it also may result in more staff to help with physical distancing, extra cleaning, and a lower staff-to-camper ratio for children’s programs. Some programs hinge on the availability of school buildings and may need an alternate location or special consideration from the school district.

Will residents return to recreation programs? Enrollment in programs may not materialize. It depends on how safe people feel venturing into small group settings again. Programs that may have enjoyed high enrollment may not attract participants. You can survey residents or ask community organizations for help in gauging interest. Recreation staff are some of the most creative government workers around: Tap into your group’s wisdom and ask for suggestions about how to reconfigure popular programs for maximum safety.

Anticipate that some things will be different from now on

Offering portable handwashing for campers or handwashing stations at public events and supplying medical-grade masks for staff who may want to wear them are a few things that maybe be part of a permanent change. Check with public health professionals and ask residents and staff what precautions they expect to be in place in parks, community centers, and sports facilities. If you intend to do health screenings, or ask people to self-monitor, how will this be documented?

Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation District in Oregon has created a Recovery Planning document that looks at what to consider when planning for the resumption of programs and the reopening of facilities. It’s a template that your jurisdiction may find helpful.


Here are a few additional resources to help with recovery planning for your community events and recreation programs:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Laura Crandall

Laura Crandall worked for MRSC as a Public Policy Consultant and Finance Analyst from August 2018 to September 2020. She no longer works for MRSC.

Previously, Laura worked as a Management Analyst with the City of Burien and as an Analyst in the Finance Department with the City of Tukwila. Laura has an MPA from Seattle University with a focus in local government. She was selected for an ICMA Local Government Management Fellowship after graduating.

Laura served as executive director of a nonprofit for six years, and has experience in organizational and program development, staff management and mentoring, budgeting, and benefits.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Laura Crandall


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