Social Distancing: A Conflict of Interest for Parks & Recreation (part 2)

Posted by Jamie Sabbach on Apr 27, 2020

The outbreak of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has created a public health and economic challenge unlike any we will see again in our lifetimes. Overcoming this crisis will require raw and un-abiding leadership at every level, starting with what we can do as individuals to look past our own interests, care for others, and be responsible stewards of our systems and institutions.

What’s the right thing to do? Is it better to keep doors open, flights operating and events on schedule so that the economy survives and people get paid, OR, should we close doors and borders, and shudder services that do not comply with “social distancing” mandates in order to save lives?

The ethical conflict between health, money and politics is at play like never before. Decisions to prioritize health come at great economic cost – among those negatively affected by "social distancing" include small businesses, the tourism industry and anyone whose reliance on a regular paycheck has been compromised. And let us not forget about the people who were already struggling to pay the rent before the Coronavirus/Covid-19 outbreak happened.

Further complicating an already complicated issue is the Federal government’s interest in pouring $850B into the US economy to help soften the economic fallout. Where is this money coming from? The Congressional Budget Office’s figures tell us that the Federal deficit is more than $1T and the debt is $23T. I suppose we can just fire up the printing presses at the U.S. Mints in Philadelphia and Denver...

But this is supposed to be an article about parks and recreation. In this time of uncertainty, it is nice to see many agencies balancing health and economic interests by offering virtual fitness classes and community gatherings and providing mobile activities for small groups of children and families. These are clearly efforts to encourage healthy habits during a time of uncertainty and isolation, and do right by communities through adaptation and extra effort.

While we all pull together to remain connected to our communities and work from home to keep a safe distance yet maintain some momentum, the story is incomplete and will include some unfortunate outcomes. As a profession and social service, parks and recreation has been placed on notice. Facility doors have closed, playgrounds are off limits, activities and events are cancelled, and we have had to let “non-essential” staff go or place them on extended leave with no date for return in site. Inevitably it is expected that there will be lost revenues and jobs, and public pressure to provide what was once available when the doors re-open to compensate for all that people feel they have lost during a dark period in their lives. Does the saying "do more with less" ring any bells?

This public health crisis is not just a one and done exercise where we all return to “normal” afterwards. A new reality will result and I for one am optimistic that this will be a wake-up call to address issues that were hiding below the surface like the wide-spread lack of financial reserves, heavy reliance on taxes to pay the bills, development at the expense of taking care of existing infrastructure, and other unpopular topics that will be mission critical when the dust settles. What concerns me most as a career park and recreation professional are the agencies that were already in crisis mode before this all happened but did not want to admit it or simply failed to exhibit any financial discipline and responsibility.

So, here’s the thing. The outbreak of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has created a public health and economic challenge unlike any we will see again in our lifetimes, regardless of your age cohort or generation. Overcoming this crisis will require raw and un-abiding leadership at every level, starting with what we can do as individuals to look past our own interests, care for others, and be responsible stewards of our systems and institutions.

How will we behave when we get back to the office? How will we respond if we have less resources including revenues and staff? Will we think more entrepreneurial? Will we have the courage to tell those who have that they cannot have more at the expense of those who have less?

As we continue to experience the global coronavirus pandemic, we will keep our distance from one another. And time will tell what this all will mean.