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Employee discusses public spaces reopening June 1, challenges posed by offering recreation during COVID-19

As part of a new series called Checking In, Pamplin Media Group spoke with Rick Gruen — Clackamas County Parks and Forest Manager. He spoke about preparations being made ahead of the June 1 reopening of county parks boat ramps, as well as the challenges that come with wanting to offer recreation opportunities to local residents who are becoming increasingly anxious to get outdoors while simultaneously trying to minimize the spread of COVID-19. FILE PHOTO - Barton Park

How has your department fared in terms of adjusting to challenges posed by COVID-19?

It's been an ever evolving education as we get clarity and stay abreast of everything that's going on. We've been sitting on calls every week with the Oregon Recreation and Park Association for all the park providers and different jurisdictions who are all trying to get info and making sure we're complying with the governor's directives.

How have the governor's directives changed park operations?

For us, it was a matter of making sure we have all the social distancing signage and protocols in place. One of the things we have to do that's been the biggest struggle in opening up is getting our seasonal crew hired. We were kind of in limbo, not knowing when we'd open and be able to offer jobs. Normally our seasonal staff would be on by now, and we'd have a couple of weeks of training in place before the season really came on us. So with the new protocols in place, getting our orientation and training protocols together so that when we start bringing them on they can get properly trained on. Restroom cleaning procedures, we have to add a little more intensity to that with COVID-19. Also, orientation for new employees now is built around not only doing the work but also understanding what their role is as kind of a social distancing monitor. We're not there to enforce social distancing, but to observe and monitor so that hopefully the messaging will go out about what it's like to come to our county parks at this time.

Has it been hard to hire season staff when you can't physically meet?

It's gone fairly well. A lot of people do better when they interview in person than over the phone or via Zoom. But I think we have mostly everybody hired now. We normally hire between 32-35 seasonals. With some of our restrictions we're going to be in the upper 20s because we're not opening picnic areas and shelters, so there's fewer people that we can get by with.

How will social distancing be enforced? Will mostly be on the honor system of those that visit county parks?

As we've been discussing over the weeks leading up to opening and with those who have opened ahead of us, nobody is doing enforcement. It's more about education through videos on YouTube or social media to get the message out. It's about saying, we just opened our parks, here's what our responsibilities are to provide you with safe parks, here's what your responsibilities are to safely use our parks. If we can do that together, good. If you can't respect that, then we have no choice but to close it down. Nothing good will come from trying to enforce social distancing.

We also have a program starting called the Clackamas River Ambassadors. We're piloting it this year in a partnership with Oregon State Parks, county parks and private outfitters and river guides. We're stationing people at Barton, Carver, McIver and Estacada Lake as goodwill ambassadors. They're out there to educate the public on river health and river safety, as well as now people safety in the time of COVID.

As weather gets nice, how is the county preparing for a potential influx of visitors to its park, particularly those on the Clackamas River?

One way we're also going to manage the amount of people is to reduce the capacity of users. During the summer float season you're probably familiar with the Barton to Carver float. That can be pretty crazy and chaotic during the summer.

Well in a normal year we probably have capacity for 800 parking spaces. We have a ball field that in the summertime we turn into a parking area. One way to manage the amount of users is we're not going to open up the overflow lot this year. The governor's office even suggested putting cones for every other spot to manage distance, so instead of 800 cars, we'll have 400.


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