Parks and Recreation to delay reopening plan, affecting tournaments and rec center access

photo by: Nick Krug

Sports Pavilion Lawrence, 100 Rock Chalk Lane, is shown in this file photo from June 2017.

Though Lawrence’s recreation centers and sports fields could technically open up for broader use under health orders, Parks and Recreation leaders say they will continue to limit their use until health officials lift restrictions put in place to decrease the spread of the coronavirus.

The local health department announced Thursday that Douglas County would remain in Phase 3 of the state’s Ad Astra reopening plan for an additional two weeks. Phase 3 prohibits gatherings larger than 45 people and calls for people to maintain a social distance of 6 feet from one another in public. Masks are required in public places where social distancing is not possible.

The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department subsequently announced it would also delay its reopening plan, meaning that athletic tournaments will not be allowed and that weight rooms, cardio areas, walking tracks and indoor courts at the city’s four recreation centers will remain closed to the general public. Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said those decisions were made in consultation with Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health.

“With the cases increasing in Douglas County, we thought it was a good time to do a reset and take a look at everything that we are doing,” Rogers said.

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Apart from delaying the reopening plan, one of those decisions included advising a national softball tournament that it could not take place in Lawrence as planned.

Part of the 2020 Midwest National Championship fastpitch softball tournament, organized by Midwest Sports Productions, was scheduled for Lawrence from July 7 to July 11, but the city advised the tournament that it would not be allowing such events until Phase 4 of reopening, when all social-distancing and gathering restrictions lift. Though technically a tournament could take place if it followed the restrictions, Rogers said bringing a considerable amount of people from outside the city for a tournament, potentially from cities or states with higher infection rates than Lawrence, was not in the best interest of public safety.

“We looked at different ways of doing things, and although Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health doesn’t expressly prohibit us from holding tournaments, from their perspective it is discouraged.”

Though the Douglas County health order includes the gathering limit of 45 people, that limit is for each separated area of a facility, which would technically allow tournaments to take place. Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health spokesman George Diepenbrock explained that the gathering limit would apply to each ball diamond, not the complex as a whole, and refers to the spectators who cannot practice social distancing, not the participants on the field. Diepenbrock said the health department has been communicating with Parks and Recreation about how reopening has progressed and the local rise in cases. As of Friday, Douglas County had reported 251 cases total since the pandemic began.

Tori Blake, director of operations for Midwest Sports Productions, said the organization has been playing tournaments in the Kansas City area since June 1 and that the games that were scheduled in Lawrence will now be played in Kansas City, Kan. Blake said the tournament would be abiding by Kansas Department of Health and Environment quarantine requirements, and no teams from affected states would be playing in the tournament. The KDHE requires any visitors from states with a large uptick in cases — currently Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina — to quarantine for 14 days after arrival in Kansas.

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The Midwest National Championship tournament is one of about 20 volleyball, basketball and softball tournaments that the city has had to cancel since the pandemic began, according to schedules Rogers provided to the Journal-World. Multiple sports camps and other special events, such as craft fairs, have also been canceled. Another 13 tournaments and two craft fairs are currently on the schedule for the remainder of the year. In addition to those events, Parks and Recreation officials say they are also exercising caution when it comes to more broadly reopening their facilities to the public.

Roger Steinbrock, of the department’s marketing division, said that while the tournaments do bring in revenue for the department in terms of rental fees, the bigger impact is on the community as a whole. He noted that those visitors spend money while they are here, contributing to both sales tax and transient guest tax revenue. Regarding both the prohibition of tournaments and limits on recreation centers, Steinbrock said that for him the decision to keep restrictions in place goes back to public health.

“I think we always want to err on the side of caution when it comes to public health, more than anything else,” Steinbrock said. “We just want to follow the guidance and work in concert with the public health office and city risk management.”

Rogers said that in addition to the health concerns, the second factor in the decision is the department’s budget and the resulting impact on staffing levels. The pandemic, associated health orders and the related economic impact have significantly impacted the department’s revenue, Rogers said, and caused the department to hire fewer part-time staffers this season. He said typically Parks and Recreation employs about 700 people in seasonal or part-time positions and is currently employing less than half that number. Rogers said no full-time staff has been laid off.

Parks and Recreation announced in May that its public outdoor pools would not open this summer because of health and budget reasons, and decisions regarding the city’s other facilities would follow the phases laid out by state and local health officials. Though the city’s four recreation centers, three community centers and the Prairie Park Nature Center could open up for wider use under current health guidelines, the parks and recreation plan will continue to keep those facilities closed or keep limitations in place until social-distancing and gathering restrictions are phased out.

The recreation centers include basketball courts, weight rooms, cardio equipment, game rooms, gymnastics areas and, in the case of Sports Pavilion Lawrence, an indoor walking track and indoor soccer field, that are typically free and open to public. Currently, the city’s four recreation centers are open only for fitness classes, which participants must sign up and pay for. Rogers said the county’s recent mask requirement would be enforced for those participants, and they will have to wear a mask or face covering when they enter the building and can take it off once they are able to maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

The Parks and Recreation Department will reevaluate its operation again in mid-July.

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