College of Education and Human Development - George Mason University

College of Education and Human Development

Adapting Amid a Pandemic

July 29, 2020

By Greg Sullivan

As a full-time student, George Mason Recreation Management senior Emma Werthmann started her new job as amusement manager at Fairfax County’s Burke Lake Park in February, just before the coronavirus pandemic altered life for most Americans.

Only weeks after she began her new position where she oversees the busy park’s train station, mini golf course, and carousel rides, as well as a team of five employees, whom she calls “amazing people,” the park had to close public access to its recreational facilities for a few weeks to quarantine.

Like many Mason students and recent alumni working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic in local parks, it has been an interesting time of early career adjustment in the field of parks and recreation for Werthmann.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t here at this park very long before the shutdown. After a couple weeks, we came back and have been working pretty much 40 hours a week ever since,” said Werthmann, who is pursuing a Health, Fitness, and Recreation Resources degree with a concentration in parks and outdoor recreation.

Recreation management senior Emma Werthmann
serves as the amusement manager at Burke Lake Park
in Fairfax County.

Quickly, things picked up once everyone zeroed in on outdoor recreation being one of the safest activities during the pandemic.

“The biggest difference from a lakefront standpoint is looking at the number of things we’ve got to do as far as cleaning and sanitizing,” Werthmann said. “We have mini golf open now, we have the train station opened in the last couple weeks, and the marina and campgrounds are open. We have to clean every golf club that comes back from mini golf; every train ride, we have to wipe down the train; every carousel run, we clean the horses. Personal floatation devices, we’re spraying down and dunking them in water and cleaning every boat that comes in. Our website offers advance tickets online to minimize contact.”

While the pandemic has caused logistical hurdles, Werthmann, who also recently enrolled in Mason’s accelerated master’s degree program in sport and recreation studies in the College of Education and Human Development, said one positive is that having to make so many on-the-job adjustments has taught her that she now wants to build her budding parks career in the direction of the operations side or perhaps in human resources.

Corey Payne, another full-time parks and outdoor recreation student at Mason who will graduate next year with her bachelor’s degree, is a senior ranger at Pohick Bay Regional Park (operated by NOVA Parks) in Lorton and is in a similar position at work.

Payne said her park also has shifted procedures from an operations standpoint to manage the pandemic.

“Certain things have changed where there are precautions put in place to protect me, my coworkers, and the general public,” she said. “There’s a lot of additional cleaning and sanitation. We wear masks. The camp store, where a lot of our interactions with the public happen, has been converted to a drive-up operation where people drive up, get out of the car, and come to a window and interact with us through a glass barrier. It’s safer for us and them.”

With warmer temperatures, Pohick Bay has stayed busy. In addition to her work interacting with the public and co-workers and often closing down the park at night, Payne is helping with sanitizing and cleaning bathrooms on a strict two-hour schedule.

Recreation management senior Corey Payne works
as a senior ranger at Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton.

However, she said her work is rewarding and she sees the public benefitting a lot from the fruits of the labor from her parks and recreation peers.

“Especially with the pandemic, being outside is a huge thing right now for a lot of people,” Payne said. “Recreation is what a lot of people have to look forward to right now. Getting out and getting to kayak or whatever they can do may be all that they have.”

Adjusting on the fly

Zack Stevens, who works as the outdoor facilities supervisor for the Town of Leesburg Parks and Recreation Department’s 17 parks, said his role has lately required an increased focus on public communications.

“The Parks and Recreation Department made sure that we’re following all the Virginia, CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and local health guidelines and following the appropriate phases,” said Stevens, who is currently completing his bachelor’s degree at Mason. “With all those guidelines and the governor’s orders and reopening phases, my job duties required a shift to help keep the public informed, so I started making posters and posting information at all of our town’s parks.”

For those whose jobs are not tied to fixed facilities, the logistics can also be challenging.

Matthew Mast, a swim coach with Occoquan Swimming who finished his bachelor’s degree in May, said his organization worked hard and is excited to have found a suitable facility for its young athletes to use this summer. Occoquan Swimming is now managing Lake Ridge Community Swimming Club in Woodbridge and has had success adjusting to the pandemic and giving swimmers a place to go.

Recreation management senior Corey Payne
(far right, front) with Pohick Bay Regional Park staff.

“We’re one of the first teams that was able to get back in the water in the country, which was super exciting,” Mast said. “At first we were looking at options on open water but couldn’t find any area lakes that would work for us, and then we found this swim club, which is great.”

Mast said his group closely follows safety guidelines put out by USA Swimming and isn’t conducting its usual competitions due to crowd size restrictions stemming from the pandemic. But while the competitions are on hold, he said the athletes are benefitting greatly just by having a place to train safely.

“It’s definitely been a challenge trying to keep kids from getting too close to one another and making sure the kids can hear coaches since we’re farther apart this summer for social distancing,” said Mast, who is coaching children and youth from age 7 to 17 this year. “It’s a little bit of a balancing act between teaching quality technique and making sure kids at least get the exercise they need and aren’t stuck sitting at home all day.

“It just made me really happy to be able to get the kids back in the water.”

Recreation management associate professor and academic program co-coordinator Brenda Wiggins said she’s been very pleased with all her current and recent students’ work out in their communities, especially in light of the pandemic and the important role recreation is playing right now in the country. She also praised the work of Paul Gilbert, the Recreation Management program’s executive in residence and by day the executive director of NOVA Parks, where many Mason students and recent graduates are employed.

“The beauty of recreation management is that there are both part-time and seasonal positions, so many of our majors get paid or volunteer throughout their four years at Mason,” said Wiggins. “I am so proud of their accomplishments.”