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Here's to Health!

Short- & Long-Term Health & Hygiene Strategies

By Dave Ramont


Back when closures first started happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were in uncharted waters, adjusting on-the-fly as they figured out ways to serve their customers and stay afloat. And those in the recreation and wellness industries were in the same boat. Now, even with coronavirus numbers spiking again and new restrictions taking place, people remain anxious to participate in recreation and fitness programs. So what are some strategies that facilities have implemented when it comes to keeping their patrons safe, and what are some physical and operational adjustments that may become permanent?

Reconfiguring for Health

Barker Rinker Seacat (BRS) is an architecture firm with offices in Colorado and Texas, and their clients include community recreation centers, senior centers, municipal buildings and schools. Craig Bouck is a principal and strategy partner at BRS, and Mick Massey is a senior associate and the Texas regional director. They reflected back on the initial quarantine last year, and how badly people were craving recreation. "What we learned from that is parks and rec services are essential to our communities, because they were actually overwhelmed with people going out and using parks and trails after restrictions were lifted," said Massey, a former parks and rec director. "This is also an opportunity to educate leaders in how important funding parks and rec can be, when it comes down to making a difference in communities."

Bouck and Massey have given presentations advising recreation professionals on how to adapt their centers to a post-COVID-19 era, and how to prepare and design for a safer and healthier future. They believe that the three resources that will likely have the most impact include building size, infrastructure and building layout.

With building size, it's easy to say that facilities need to be larger to allow for more social distancing, but Bouck knows that this is neither likely nor feasible. "So we take the resources we have and the strategy is to reallocate them."

Sometimes, due to budgets, the parts of a building that aren't programmable—entryways, lobbies, lounges, circulation spaces—have been diminished. But now, having these areas more crowded is perceived as unsafe, so perhaps they need to be reimagined. "We can really be strategic and not put all of our lobby space in the front of the building, but spread it out," said Bouck. "Not adding more square footage but reallocating it; putting that little gathering space in front of each of the rooms that are going to have groups so people can arrive and depart safely."

Adding more entrances and exits is another strategy that Bouck suggests, especially for seniors or high-risk groups. "And if we can create an opportunity where there's one way in and one way out, people are going to feel safer."

Also, people aren't going to be comfortable being close to others in locker rooms or restrooms, so reallocating space in the building might be beneficial. "The building might ultimately be the same size it always was, but some of these interstitial spaces, these support spaces, might get more priority."

Air quality is another consideration that's getting more scrutiny. "People are really worried about airborne pathogens like COVID, and the question is: Can we do more to get fresh air in these spaces and get the nasty air out?" asked Bouck.

Massey described speaking with HVAC experts, and while they've learned that increasing ventilation in older buildings will be a challenge, it's a worthwhile investment. "Compartmentalizing your building makes sense, but also compartmentalizing large spaces," said Massey, comparing this strategy to zones in airports, where they move out large columns of air to ensure safety. "We have to adapt that technology more to places like rec centers in the future."

Features like air ionizers and HEPA filters, which remove dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and other airborne pollutants, are also possible strategies. "COVID likes it a little dry, while other pathogens like molds like it wet", said Massey. "The most optimum safe zone is aiming at 50% humidity."

UV lights have been used for years to kill pathogens in water at aquatic facilities, and now this technology has been moving to non-aquatic venues as well. But Massey and Bouck stress that while these can be beneficial, they can also be dangerous to people and the built environment, so consulting with engineers and technicians is crucial. Some strategies for UV lights include incorporating them in HVAC units, employing them at the top of rooms or when the building is closed, and even distributing them with drones, particularly in restrooms, food handling areas, etc. "This is a system-wide approach to making these buildings safer," said Massey.

Keep It Clean, Encourage Distance

Ronald Romens is president of a Wisconsin-based company that provides planning, design and operational services to resorts, aquatics and fitness centers, YMCAs and municipalities. He believes that designs will be affected by the pandemic but added that the rules are still changing. "I would foresee more passive recreation and recreation for individuals/families like trails, disc golf, etc., versus specifically encouraging 'team' activities like sport courts. In general, I don't see outdoor recreation being as affected as indoor recreation. We've seen a big uptick on design-and-build of disc golf courses."

Stringent cleaning regimens instill confidence in visitors, and Romens' company distributes a low-toxicity disinfectant cleaner that kills bacteria, fungi and viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19. It's recommended for use in recreation areas, point-of-sale locations, playgrounds, splash pads, dining surfaces and restrooms. They also distribute a sanitizer, which modifies surfaces to provide long-lasting anti-microbial protection against viruses, bacteria, algae, mold and mildew. Disinfecting with the cleaner and protecting with the sanitizer is the "one-two punch needed for indoor and outdoor environments," said Romens.

Other helpful product ideas include hand sanitizer stations, neoprene face masks made for water use and water walkers—protective feet coverings made for inflatable aquatic obstacle courses that provide increased protection against transferable bacteria and germs. Inflatable beach tents are another option, which venues can distribute in rows six feet or more apart. "(These) are a great strategy to provide structured traffic patterns and distancing to an unstructured environment while creating a very comfortable, rentable space for families," said Romens.

Romens offered some safety tips that facility operators might consider, including: create smaller events by limiting guests and breaking into time shifts; display signage; know CDC guidelines and follow them; reduce hours to "one shift"; take temperatures of staff and guests and have a plan for elevated temps; refund seasonal passes and instead allow for daily use; open up in phases and/or zones; set up cashless pay options, including online; remove site furnishings that encourage congregating like picnic tables and benches; utilize floor markers and other site markers. "Things change daily, so over-communicating is the best way to keep in touch with the details, and stay relevant and safe," added Romens.

According to Bouck, building layout may be the core of future planning. "You can take on a whole attitude of adaptability and you can do it really smartly with building layout." For now, you might repurpose your gymnasium for aerobics classes because you can get 30 people in there with six-foot spacing. But then storage space becomes important because now where will you store the aerobics equipment, or tables and chairs if you're now hosting bingo in the gym? "So storage is going to become one of the keys to versatility," said Bouck.

"I think we're going to have to reimagine the way we think of fitness areas," added Bouck. "Maybe put less equipment in and spread it out, give it more breathing room." Massey suggested one option might be to disperse the fitness equipment around the gym or a walking track. "That's an adaptive reuse; that flexibility that's built in." Bouck pointed out that that's where infrastructure considerations come in. If you're adding fitness equipment to a gym, having extra power strips wired in will be a plus. "It's a minor cost at the time, and you'll be glad you have it."

Bouck stressed that infrastructure creates versatility, and this includes the ability to create connectivity. He explained how in the past, rec facilities may have provided Wi-Fi, but on a minimum basis. "That was really a problem when they started developing digital content to send out to their constituents if they didn't have the bandwidth to get it out there. So we need to provide new infrastructure so they can use these facilities for all the gear—lighting and cameras—to allow them to create that digital content in these spaces." Bouck envisions a future where digital content becomes a normal offering, or a membership or subscription option.

Diversify Your Programming

At Seattle Parks and Recreation, Kyle Bywater is the recreation program coordinator for specialized programs, which serves youth and adults with disabilities. Savannah Seiple is the recreation leader for specialized programs. She explained how they create four program videos weekly to post on their Facebook and YouTube pages. "We do skills and drills for our Special Olympics athletes on Mondays, cooking on Tuesdays, art on Wednesdays and an adaptive movement program on Fridays. (Last) fall we also offered three live virtual programs weekly, where participants call in or use a computer to connect with their peers. Staff then help play games and facilitate conversation."

Seattle Parks also offers Rec-to-go kits that participants can buy, which have the supplies used in the videos so they can participate along with staff. The Winter Kraft Kit included winter-themed arts & crafts, cocoa and candy canes. In addition, Seiple described their Harvest Drive-thru Festival for celebrating fall: "(Participants) all safely stayed in their cars while they drove through several activities. We'll do another one of these in March."

Seiple discussed some successful virtual campaigns they've started, including Healthy at Home, which encouraged participants to stay healthy by staying active, eating healthy, drinking water and getting creative. "Participants sent pictures or videos in and then got to be featured on the Specialized Programs Facebook. These posts are definitely our most popular; participants took great pride in seeing themselves featured and loved seeing their friends."

Seattle Parks and Rec has also been working with other local partners to provide free programming, according to Bywater, who pointed out that a lot of groups want to connect with the public but don't know how, so they've become a vehicle to make that happen. "We're partnering with Seattle Kraken, the local hockey team, to provide free virtual hockey lessons. We're partnering with the Office of Arts & Culture and vicariously Pacific NW Ballet and the Museum of Popular Culture…to teach enrichment programming to youth and teens. We're working with the FRYE Art Museum to support the Rec-to-go kits and we have other volunteers that will lead a virtual book club and a youth martial arts class." Other popular virtual offerings not specific to Specialized Programs include music lessons, dance and parkour.

Of course, computer access and internet connectivity are concerns, and Seiple said that for those without computers they offer a call-in feature during their live programming. "Even though participants aren't able to see each other, they still get a lot of enjoyment out of talking to 25-plus peers on the phone. In addition, staff make calls to participants who don't have computer access so they know we're still here and care about them during this time."

For those looking to start virtual programming, Bywater suggested keeping a focus on equity. Also, to engage staff, assign meaningful tasks like setting up virtual studios for instructors, creating training for colleagues and developing new procedures. He also suggested that programs use a supporting host to manage the virtual platform and help clients with any connection issues. "This allows the instructor to lead the class without having to also pay attention to any technical issues."

Seiple shared that they met regularly with the Adaptive Round Table, consisting of other cities' specialized rec groups in their area. "In the beginning (it) was so helpful to bounce off ideas, share resources and support each other in our specialized recreation endeavors. Some staff also attended the weekly online WRPA programmers meetings." She reported that they've gotten great feedback from participants, and they're considering pairing a virtual aspect to their in-person programming in the future.

Long-Term Innovations

Facilities that host gatherings like sporting events have their own challenges with keeping people safe. EBI is a Maryland-based company specializing in background screening in all industries, and they've recently unveiled a new product for providing workplace health and safety. "As we regularly work with HR and IT decision-makers, providing both a technology-based solution alongside best practice guidance for keeping the workplace safe during the pandemic seemed a natural fit," said RJ Frasca, vice president of product and brand marketing at EBI.

Their strategy involves a four-step plan for venues, starting with employees answering some CDC-recommended questions each day to identify if they're potentially symptomatic or if they've been in a high-risk area. The questions can be addressed on a mobile app or at a kiosk. Next, employees' temperatures are taken via a thermal scanning kiosk. The device also detects if a mask is being worn.

The next step involves distance monitoring. Employees wear a sensor that emits a warning when they are too close to another employee, and data is collected and stored in a command center. The system also alerts users to high-traffic or congested areas in the workplace that may need reconfiguring. Finally, if an employee tests positive for COVID-19 or another infectious disease, contact tracing helps identify people who may have come in contact with the affected employee and highlights locations in the facility where the employee worked, reducing further potential exposures.

"(Our) solution is designed to serve any size venue," said Frasca. "The solution is modular and all aspects are scalable. The value comes with both the confidence it provides and the data needed to make decisions quickly. The command center access comes with every account and allows administrators to manage roles and permissions, administer all devices used and view data dashboards. The optional mobile apps are free and include CDC-recommended symptomatic and potential exposure-related questions. Thermal scanners and contact tracing solutions are optional and can be added at any time." Current users include sporting venues, corporate offices, retail and hospitality.

Frasca believes that organizations will utilize these solutions to keep staff and visitors safe well beyond the current pandemic, and he pointed to influenza as an example, which costs businesses nearly $100 billion annually according to the CDC. "The small investment up front in health and wellness seems to be a no-brainer as far as that's concerned."

Bouck and Massey also discussed innovations and strategies that might stick around, including touchless solutions for doors; QR codes strategically placed to download apps and get directions; water bottle fillers instead of fountains; trash equipment with anti-microbial formulation; card readers and other touchless points of sale; sneeze guards; screens outside of restrooms indicating how many stalls are available and where the next restroom is; replacing cloth seats with anti-microbial fabric; utilizing certain times of day to serve vulnerable populations; and setting up activity spaces adjacent to buildings.

"New design ideas are going to make things smarter, more adaptable and more versatile. They're going to allow these centers to have the option for being open, even in a diminished capacity, whereas before they had no choice and had to close down," said Bouck.

"The public hasn't lost their appetite for wanting to live in a community where the quality of life is good, and the recreation center is part of that," added Massey. "You've got finite resources, and it's about reallocation; it's about building size, infrastructure and building layout." RM