As the pandemic barrels ahead with no end in sight, and some parks have closed due to coronavirus cases, workers are calling for greater transparency and protection from the Chicago Park District while they helm the parks’ front lines.
Recently closed parks include Columbus Park and Haas Park, according to SEIU Local 73, which represents about 2,500 Park District workers. At least 40 Park District workers have had to quarantine after possible exposure, according to the union, and one Park District worker at Columbus Park recently died from complications of the virus.
Jeffrey Howard, Service Employees International Union Local 73 executive vice president, said “we just want to make sure that our workers are protected.”
Information on closures has been “disjointed” and unclear, he said, and that’s part of the problem. When asked how workers have been notified of closures, Howard said for weeks it was “word-of-mouth.”
“We want to be public citizens. We want to be servants of the community because we know the community needs our parks,” Howard said. “But at the same time, there are things the parks can do to make sure that their workers are safe. ”
Seven positive cases have affected programming at six parks this month, according to the Park District. Four locations are still closed.
Columbus Park was among the first to shut down, according to the Park District’s website, on July 17, after two staff members tested positive. Day camp families were notified immediately and the park closed for two weeks. The building was cleaned and reopened Tuesday.
Other cases have been confirmed at Haas Park, which reopened earlier this week after a staff member tested positive earlier this month, along with Cole Park, Davis Square Park, Rowan Park and most recently West Pullman Park, which closed Wednesday.
Additionally, the Park District was notified earlier this month that a child or staff member with the Easter Seals Preschool at Fosco Park tested positive, but the park remained open while the preschool was shutdown for two weeks because the school operates in a dedicated space, according to the Park District’s website.
Blackhawk Park closed programming in late June while staff waited for test results, according to the Park District’s website, but testing came back negative for all park staff.
The Park District says SEIU was alerted when a positive case was confirmed, and the district is now notifying the entire workforce when a case is confirmed.
In a statement, Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons said “the safety of Chicago Park District patrons and staff is paramount.”
“Prior to reopening our park field houses, safety measures were put into place to protect our workforce and the communities we serve,” Lemons said. “These have included implementing robust safety training programs and policies such as cleaning and disinfection procedures, requiring staff and patrons to wear face coverings and practice social distancing, as well as modifying programming and minimizing the number of people in our facilities. In addition, the entire Chicago Park District workforce of 3,700 employees is provided an adequate supply of PPE and hand sanitizer.”
With each closure, the Park District followed procedures outlined by the Chicago Department of Public Health, “including notifying staff, and parents of any minors involved in programming to ensure the safety of everyone involved,” the statement said. “CDPH was notified promptly and guided the district’s response. Each park was cleaned and disinfected in accordance with health and safety guidelines.”
Howard said the union would like to see clearer guidelines on testing and handling potential exposure, and additional protections such as more PPE, temperature checks and plexiglass barriers in certain locations.
“We’re not trying to be obstructionists,” Howard said. He thinks the Park District is “trying to do their job” but wants to see more communication so that workers can do their jobs as safely as possible.
Workers have asked the Park District for months to be involved in developing safety plans, according to the union, but a meeting has not been scheduled.
Additionally, Howard said a plan for the fall also needs to be figured out.
“Especially given the fact that we don’t know what’s going to happen with schools,” Howard said. “And then if schools aren’t open, what role does the Park District play?
Regis Banks, a worker at La Follette Park and SEIU Local 73 executive board member, said he hoped to see more transparency from the Park District.
Banks said colleagues have shared concerns about the mental toll of coming to work amid fears of contracting or spreading the virus. He said the recent death of his colleague at Columbus Park “broke my heart.”
“I just want everybody in the community to be safe,” Banks said. “And that the Park District inform us, the employees, as well as the community, on what’s transpiring in these parks.”
Banks said he worries for his own safety as an attendant, while some park users try to fight mask requirements and his job is cleaning up after those who use park facilities. The general guidelines are “don’t come to work if you don’t feel well,” Banks said, which he worries exclude anyone who may be asymptomatic.
“So if you care about us, you should have an open-door policy,” Banks said, about the Park District. “We should be able to come to you and express our concerns, and we should be able to talk things out and work things out.”
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