The New Normal for Recreation

Summer Camp in Coral Gables is Canceled, Though Other Outdoor Activities Continue

In a post-pandemic world, will we ever again see two golfers in one cart at Granada Golf Course, or a half-dozen toddlers crowding into a faux hollow log at Betsy Adams Park? Will as many as 500 youngsters ever again be enrolled in summer camp at the Coral Gables Youth Center?

That is just a sample of the vexing questions to be answered in the months ahead by city officials slowly reopening parks, playgrounds and recreation programs at a time when masks, social distancing and heightened concerns about public health are now considered normal.

“In the short term, we are basically starting from scratch,” says Fred Couceyro, director of Parks and Recreation. “This is a chance to recalibrate, to ask, ‘What’s important to our people?’”

Many changes have already been made. Over the next few months – at least until a vaccine against COVID-19 is available – restrictions on spacing at tennis courts, golf courses and parks will remain in place, Couceyro says.

Summer camps for kids at the city’s War Memorial Youth Center did resume June 5, looking “more like Summer Care with a Social Distancing Twist,” the city said in a press release. Campers split into groups of eight who stayed together for the entire four-week session. But with the recent spike in COVID cases, that has now changed. The city has decided, in an abundance of caution, to cancel the second session. 

Couceyro says there were not reported cases of the virus among the 48 children who registered for the first four-week session, which ended July 10. Of those parents of children registered for the second session, “some many have been disappointed, but most understand,” he says.

Meanwhile, with other recreational activities continuing, parks and gyms are outfitted with sanitizing stations, and facilities are cleaned at least daily by custodial staff. Masks are commonplace.

“A big issue will be dealing with resources needed to meet guidelines —supplies and more staff,” Couceyro says. While the expense of new safety measures could pose a strain on the budget, “we had four months where we weren’t spending as normal, so we have that money,” says Couceyro. “We’re okay for this year.”

The July 4th fireworks show at the Biltmore Hotel, which annually draws a crowd of up to 40,000 to the golf course, was canceled this year. Another popular event, the holiday tree lighting ceremony in December, also seems endangered. 

Even if a vaccine is available months from now, some virus-triggered changes are likely to last. In April the city scrapped the annual Easter egg hunt, when up to 1,000 boys and girls scramble for plastic eggs dropped from a helicopter onto a ball field. This year the city sent a costumed Easter bunny, with pink ears and a cottontail, to deliver gifts baskets to more than 200 homes. “It was very successful; people were ecstatic about it,” says Couceyro. “It is something we’re looking at [continuing]. Do alternatives meet the need better?”

Another example of a pandemic-era change that could stick is the annual Memorial Day service, usually attended by about 50 people. This year hundreds of viewers turned in to watch the ceremony online, Couceyro says.

During the virus lockdown, the city also stepped up its menu of online classes, in Zumba, origami – and how to make slime with just three ingredients. Yet online classes and virtual gatherings cannot totally supplant the human need to get outside, and to get together.

“We have learned how important open spaces are to public health and mental well-being,” says Joanna Lombard, a University of Miami professor of both architecture and public health. “Parks, public spaces, to be in greenery – even if we have to see other people at a distance – help us to know that we are part of the world.”

And Gables residents want to be out in that world, says Couceyro. “Based on what I’ve seen, the public is itching and raring to go,” he says.