Portland Parks: Most centers closed unless needed
An inquiry days before the deadly, late June heat wave underscored that Portland Parks & Recreation has still not reopened the community and arts centers closed because COVID-19, even though the City Council approved a $22 million loan to restart parks programs five months ago.
Most of the centers are air conditioned and could have provided relief during the triple-digit temperatures suspected of killing 71 people in Multnomah County. But the parks bureau said it has not yet replaced enough of the 700 employees laid off early last year because of the pandemic to fully reopen all of them.
Instead, the bureau is currently using them mostly for employees to support outdoor activities, except the Woodstock Community Center, which is fully closed. The indoor pool portions of the Southwest, Mount Scott, East Portland and Matt Dishman centers have opened for limited programming. No date has yet been set to fully reopen them once again for the public, however.
That is in contrast to the Multnomah County Library system, which has reopened eight of its branch libraries and set dates to reopen the rest by Aug. 24.
"To protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, the decision was made in February 2021 to focus on outdoor programming and to keep community centers closed based on the public health information the bureau had at the time. Reopening Portland's Community Centers will be based on public health guidance, program planning and staff capacity. PP&R will determine a reopening date for centers as we move closer to the fall season," bureau spokesman Mark Ross told the Portland Tribune.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury met last week to discuss how to improve government responses to such incidents.
"They are in agreement that, although state and local agencies devoted immense resources to planning for the excessive heat, we have an opportunity to learn from each other and find ways to improve preparedness for the next weather event," said Brown spokeswoman Liz Merah.
The parks bureau operates 12 community and arts centers citywide, include the small Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in North Portland that was used for rentals only before the pandemic. All were air conditioned, although the systems at the Southwest Community Center, Matt Dishman Center in Northeast Portland and East Portland Community Center failed during the heat wave.
As first reported by The Oregonian, on June 24, two days before the heat wave, the director of city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services asked a policy director for Mayor Ted Wheeler if the parks bureau was going to reopen the centers. At the request of the joint office, the bureau previously permitted the county to operate homeless shelters at the East Portland Community Center and Charles Jordan Community Center in North Portland from spring 2020 to March 2021. The Jordan center also was used as a shelter for people displaced by wildfire in fall 2021.
Because the parks bureau is overseen by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, the policy director sent an email to her office about the inquiry. But the email did not convey the request and instead assumed they could not be reopened. A staff member for Rubio then confirmed they could not be reopened due to staffing and other obstacles, stating, "The timing is just not great for us right now."
Rubio now says the centers will be available if the temperatures rise to life-threatening levels again.
"Never again can Portlanders go without appropriate shelter or services from record-breaking temperatures. Period. The Parks bureau will be ready with everything at our disposal," Rubio said.
It is impossible to know whether reopening the centers would have saved any lives. The county opened three large colling centers and a total of nine branch libraries, and none of them turned anyone away. Most of those who died were older and might not have been aware they — or the centers — were even open.
But the incident is a reminder of how long it is taking the parks bureau to get back to normal — even after Portland voters passed a five year, $48 million per year tax levy in November 2020 to reopen the parks. The funding stream was the backing for the intra-fund loan approved by the council in Feb. 17 of this year.
"Understanding that the public heath guidance would change, for better or worse, during the summer, PP&R committed to an outdoor program model that could consistently meet the needs of Portlanders no matter what public health guidance adjustments were made throughout the summer," Ross said.
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