As the COVID-19 crisis continues, the Park District of Oak Park is looking toward the state of Illinois and the village government for guidance in how to safely provide summer programming to residents, as well as reopening indoor and outdoor facilities.

“Right now, we’re at a little bit of a standstill,” said Jan Arnold, park district executive director. “We had to cancel our spring programs, due to the COVID outbreak, but we are doing a variety of different planning trying to figure out how the summer is going to come together.”

The park district plans to offer restructured programming based on requirements and guidance from the state of Illinois, as well as the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Oak Park Department of Public Health.

“We do believe that part of our responsibility is to provide childcare for residents,” Arnold said. “We’re looking at how we can do that safely.”

According to Arnold, a park district survey indicated that 90 percent of parents who responded said they were still looking for children’s day camp options. Of that 90 percent, 60 percent of responding parents said they would certainly sign up their children; 30 percent said signing up depended on state guidance, as well as the health and safety practices put in place.

“We want camp to be safe, first and foremost,” said Arnold. “But we also want it to be fun and memorable.”

Due to the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, parents have expressed concern with having their children attend camps with a large group of other kids.

Part of the restructured programming includes requiring attendees to wear masks and prohibiting group activities shared between multiple individual campers.

“The way camp normally works is that you would have four or five different groups of kids, but at certain times of the day, they would all come together and do large group games,” Arnold said. “We won’t be able to do that.”

Individual camps will also have fewer children in them this summer.

Arnold stated in a May 4 newsletter that camps would have no more than 10 children each. On May 5, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced, as part of his phased reopening plan, that the number of people per activity cannot exceed 10.

“Now we’re down to eight kids and two staff members,” said Arnold. “If conditions change and improve, then we might be able to add a couple more kids to that.”

The park district does not yet know the toll the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the amount of revenue it brings in during the summer months. Arnold expects to have a clearer idea after camp registration happens.

“We don’t know the exact loss yet because it would be a reduction of expenses as well,” Arnold said.

  Traditionally, the park district’s day camp program serves between 700 and 1,000 children on a weekly basis.

“Right now, we’re looking closer to the 350-ish mark,” Arnold said.

The park district may be able to serve more children than that, depending on whether Oak Park schools will continue to allow the district to use some of their available space, as in previous summers.

Camp registration for Oak Park residents begins May 26, with priority registration beginning May 23. No in-person registration is permitted. At the moment, the park district is only offering camps to those who live in Oak Park; the park district will consider opening certain camps to non-residents later in the summer.

The park districts of neighboring villages are grappling with many of the same issues facing the Park District of Oak Park.  

 “I’m working closely with Forest Park; I’m working closely with River Forest. We are all struggling with the same things,” said Arnold.

Park district staff has started to repaint and power wash public pools for swim season, but whether those pools will open remains unclear.

“We’re doing the maintenance that needs to be done and waiting for guidance from IDPH. We still have not heard if pool season will be allowed,” Arnold said. “We’re not putting any water in the pools until we have guidance.”

The soonest pools will open, if allowed, would be June, Arnold said. Traditionally, park district pools open the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. If pools open, the camps will not take attendees to swim to limit the number of people in the pool.

The Rehm Park pool has a capacity of about 795 people. The pool at Ridgeland Common has a capacity close to 600. Thousands of people cycle through those pools daily during the summer.

“When it’s hot, there’s a line down at Rehm of people waiting to get in,” said Arnold. “And obviously we can’t have those types of lines.”

The logistics of opening the pools presents major social distancing difficulties. The park district is working through various scenarios to try to anticipate problems that could happen before they happen.

“We haven’t given up on it, but we have to follow the guidance that we’re going to be given,” Arnold said.

The parks district has had to cancel concert performances and movie showings in parks for the months of May and June but hopes to resume that programming in July.

“Nobody wants to be cooped up in the house during summertime.”

While public playgrounds and sporting courts are still currently closed, green spaces remain open for use.

“People want to get outside, and we encourage people to go outside and walk,” Arnold said. “Getting fresh air is very beneficial from a psychological standpoint.”

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