Charlottesville Parks and Rec board briefed on pandemic-related closings, reopenings

The Charlottesville Parks and Recreation Advisory Board had not met for 11 months before their first virtual meeting of the year last night. Since then, Council took an action that changed the group’s relationship to city government. 

“We appear to have been demoted,” said Ned Michie, who was appointed as chair at the beginning of the meeting. “We’re now an advisory committee to staff rather than a City Council appointed advisory board.”

The group covered a lot of ground and got a lot of information from staff about what the department has been up to since the pandemic shut down government operations. Vic Garber is the deputy director of Parks and Recreation. 

“All parks are still open which includes open space, our basketball courts, tennis courts, playgrounds, trails and our shelters,” Garber said. “We still don’t take reservations at our shelters.”

However, restrooms at outdoor parks are all closed, except at the skate park and the golf courses due to the volumes of people. Also closed are the city’s indoor recreational centers and indoor pools. With spring not too far away, many are wondering what the schedule will be to open.  

“We do still follow CDC guidelines, Virginia Department of Health Guidelines, and local ordinances in everything that we do,” Garber said. “The pools are still closed because we do not have permission to open those pools yet from City Council.” 

Garber said park attendance has increased, and recreation programs pivoted to online. But other usual parks and rec offerings are still on hold.

“Athletics is still at a standstill,” Garber said. “Youth basketball was canceled. Normally we have about 500 youth participating.”

Garber said he expected representatives from Little League baseball to ask Council to allow them to prepare for them to play ball in the spring. Governor Northam has amended the state of emergency to allow this to occur and for games to be played with up to 25 spectators. 

“Presently the City is still in phase two,” Garber said. “If you remember, [Albemarle] County went to phase three. We stayed in phase two in late July.”

That caps gatherings to no more than ten people. 

“So, in a nutshell, we can practice, we can scrimmage, but we cannot have competition,” Garber said.

Ash crisis 

The pandemic is not the only natural disaster going on in our midst.  The emerald ash borer is devastating ash trees in Virginia, and the parks department has been removing affected specimens. 

The city’s Tree Commission is requesting Council spend at least $50,000 to try to treat trees and fight the spread. Parks director Todd Brown said that may just delay the inevitable.

“You can count on basically all the ash trees are going to die,” Brown said. “It’s a question of when. We are treating some of them and a small portion of money is going towards treatment. I’m working with the Tree Commission of which trees those are going to be and the arborist.”

Brown said it is now a matter of triage and that people will notice this spring when the leaves come back. He said this will become a pressing issue. Planning Commission Chair Hosea Mitchell asked an important question.

“What exactly is emerald ash borer? Is that an insect?” Mitchell asked. 

“It’s a little bug that gets in the bark and cuts off the blood flow effectively to the tree,” said parks planner Chris Gensic. 

Smith opening in May?

But back to pools. The city is continuing to rebuild the Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning system at Smith Aquatic and Fitness Center, a facility that opened in 2010 and has been plagued with issues. 

“We’re a little bit ahead of schedule so it looks like we may have a May completion and hopefully in the future, we’re projecting it might possibly be open some time in June if we’re given approval to do so,” Garber said. 

Garber said the indoor pool at Crow Recreation Center has been revamped and is ready to open, but requires Council approval to open. That applies to all facilities, and Brown said the department is getting ready. 

“At this point, we don’t know what opening will look like,” Garber said. “But we are preparing to open all facilities.”

The pool at Crow Recreation Center is closed until further notice

Even though they are no longer specifically charged with advising Council, the board discussed how they could encourage Council to begin to open up facilities. They opted to work on a letter in advance of Council’s discussion next Tuesday about the city’s COVID ordinance. 

This morning I had the opportunity to ask officials at UVA Health what they think about the potential for opening. Dr. Costi Sifri is an infection diseases expert at the UVA hospital. He urged caution. 

“We have the prospect of a vaccine that is highly effective against the strain, the predominant strains in the United States,” Dr. Sifri said. “We have hope but we also have the challenge that maybe these new variants. I think those two things need to be considered and balanced.”

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the February 12, 2021 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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