Silver Linings ft. Town of Erie

How organizations are reigniting the spark in a post-pandemic world.

Pallavi Borkar
Pallavi Borkar
July 30, 2020 5 min read

The Town of Erie Parks & Recreation department offers everything from sports & fitness programs, aquatics, camps and more to youth, seniors, and everyone in between. Theirs is a story of resilience and creative problem solving born from a commitment to serving their community during a pandemic. Rachel Wysuph, Recreation Division Manager and Charlene LeRoy, Recreation Supervisor – Facility Operations share their experience in this candid Q&A.

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What have your biggest challenges been so far?

Charlene: It’s the complete uncertainty of the pandemic. There were a lot of unknowns, we were writing a contingency plan, but all the variables kept changing. We were exhausted and anxious trying to keep up with the rapidly changing reality.

Rachel: We made mistakes along the way, we opened up registrations for our summer programs hoping the situation would blow over in a few weeks but then ended up having to wire nearly 79k in refunds back to our community members.

How did your community respond to the lockdown?

Rachel: We waived every single refunds policy that we had – we stopped monthly payment plans, we extended memberships, we were as generous as we could have possibly been with the community. Once that was communicated, they really appreciated it. We made sure that they knew we’re all in this together and we want them to come back when they’re ready.

What did you do to adapt to the new reality?

Rachel: For us, summer camps are an essential service but this year they looked different – we didn’t go on field trips, we could only do groups of ten and those ten couldn’t rotate. Some people were scared they wouldn’t be able to attend camp with their friends. We asked that everyone wear masks which some people loved, and some didn’t. We communicated that this is what camp was going to look like and let them decide if they wanted to go for it. If not, they could get a full refund any time. They appreciated that. We follow the guidelines we receive from the state of Colorado to be as safe as possible.

Charlene: Additionally, we accommodated pretty much any request that our members had. Since we aren’t operating at full capacity, if people do drop in, we don’t charge them full price right now to reflect that not all amenities are available.

Can you talk about the changes you made that were particularly successful?

Charlene: When we realized that we could reopen the building, we took those guidelines received from the state of Colorado and made a lot of modifications to our building. For instance, all our equipment is now placed 6 feet apart and we took half of our gymnasium and moved some self-propelled equipment there so that we would have more space on our cardio floor for people to work out while being socially distanced. We even did 6 foot stickers on the floors. Our pool is only limited to lap swimming right now. We also put in place a reservation system for people to book time slots so we could monitor the capacity of our building at all times.

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Rachel: Amilia helps us track who is in our building so if there is exposure then you can contact people who may have been around at the time. It’s also great to communicate unexpected closures which added to the customer service piece.

We offer movies in the park, they’re free and the community comes to watch. Our special events assistant coordinator adapted that to a drive in movie which was a huge hit. We have more coming up because it was so successful.

The town puts on fireworks for the 4th of July, but we had to cancel that due to budget cuts, so we organized a “porch party kit” where we set up all these supplies for a fun day at home. You could register, we charged $5 for the bag, people could pick it up ahead of time so on the 4th, people had decorations, water balloons, squirt guns, glow sticks, all these fun things and ideas for what you could do with them. That sold out too.

We used to offer a congregate seniors meal where the seniors could come to the community center to have lunch together at a low price, we quickly turned that into a curbside seniors lunch pickup so we could still provide those services to those who needed it. We were concerned about social isolation for our seniors and one of the things we had was a coffee talk in our lounge that we moved to zoom so they didn’t lose that connection.

How did you involve your community in determining the return to the new normal?

“We conducted a survey where we asked our community if we followed all the guidelines for social distancing and safety, would you want to come back?”

Charlene: 53% said yes and of those, 78% said they wanted a pre-registered time slot. I think we did a good job laying out our building, communicating to the community what we were doing to keep them safe and we’ve allowed people to come in and see it for themselves. When they do and they see that there are never more than 10 people on each level and everyone is wearing masks, there are tons of disinfecting wipes, we are fogging our building with hospital grade disinfectant every night, we have staff wiping down high touch surfaces every hour, they feel safe and comfortable – even the ones that weren’t completely sure.

We also want to serve those who aren’t ready to come back yet, so we’ve set up a whole bank of virtual fitness classes – everything from chair yoga intervals to barre as a members only service. So those who have an active membership have access to all of these.

Rachel: A lot of our staff send emails to patrons giving them status updates for what’s coming up, like a soft launch to gauge the response before proceeding. For swim lessons, we are thinking of having the parent in the water with their kid and the instructor on the deck directing the parent. We’re hoping to see that starting in August.

What was the journey to engaging your community virtually like?

Rachel: When we shut down, we did a big push on social media. Our original tagline is ‘connecting you to fun’ and we quickly changed it to ‘still connecting you to fun’ and released a whole bunch of fun challenges, family dance contests, activities, nutrition talks etc.

We also put a circuit challenge course in our parks, for instance, the first challenge was ‘do 10 pushups’, and we put them up on different paths in our parks which got a great response with people writing in to say thank you, sending us pictures of them doing the challenges. We also sent regular emails telling clients what’s happening with their program memberships, refunds, our offerings etc.

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“We had to rethink how to bring our offerings to where our customers are. It demanded us to think outside the box.”

Did the crisis affect staff engagement? What measures did you put in place to help them adapt to the new normal?

Rachel: One of the things we did was a weekly check-in. We would do them twice a month before, but we changed that immediately. We tried to mix things up in those meetings, like submitting baby pictures and guessing who’s baby picture it was, once we had a fitness instructor use the last 30 min to do a yoga session, we did a talk on building resilience during this time. Just different things to keep that weekly check-in fun and engaging.

How did you manage facility maintenance & scheduling during this time?

Charlene: We usually close down for a week in August for capital improvement projects in the building but since we were closed anyway, we didn’t want to reopen and then have to close again. So we shifted a whole bunch of contractors who were looking for work to get those improvements done during the closure – we replaced our climbing wall floor, resurfaced the gym floor, got a new filtration system installed for the pool, we painted a lot of the common areas like the lobby… It became very challenging to get all the cleaning supplies we would need to reopen when the time came – the sanitizer, gloves, masks, wipes etc. Luckily, we jumped on it really quickly in March and were able to place those orders which take 6-8 weeks to be delivered and now we are sitting on about 6-8 weeks of supply at any given time, so we are prepared.

Were there any unexpected opportunities that have arisen? What were they and how did you make the most of them?

Charlene: The reservation system – right before we closed, we were in the middle of our business assessment to figure out a launch date for Amilia. We were looking at August but when we realized this would go on for a little while, we needed the reservation system launched through Amilia by June 1st. It gave us the opportunity to pivot and speed up the launch – we basically executed a project that would have taken about 6 months in three weeks!

Rachel: We typically have a magazine style program guide with all the activities and details that is printed, and people can pick it up. For the fall, it occurred to us that we could print it but there is a chance that it will become quickly outdated depending on how the situation unfolds and so we decided to make it digital. Now it is an interactive program guide that will give our residents the most up-to-date version of what we’re offering. We just list our offerings without the location, date, time etc. and we update that when we are sure.

Lastly – with all this change, do you see any of them becoming part of how you serve your community in the future?

Charlene: We will keep the time slot reservations for our fitness classes. We have some classes that are limited by the number of equipment we have such as spin bikes. Before, it was on a first come first serve basis, so whoever got there first got to be in the class but for those that didn’t, they would come all the way and miss out. We will also continue to maintain the standard of cleanliness, being more regular wiping down high-touch surfaces because we realized through this process that we could be better at cleaning and sanitizing our facilities.

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Rachel: At least until there is a vaccine, we will try to bring our services to the people as much as possible. Whether it’s bringing the lunches to our seniors, having party kits that people can use at their house or virtual classes.

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