Partner Spotlight

Industry Rapid Response: NRPA

March 26, 2020

Logo for Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) partner National Recreation and Park Association.

With COVID-19 impacting daily life in America at all levels, the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) is spotlighting the impact of and responses to the current pandemic through a series of Q&As with our partners.

The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is committed to making public spaces, from playgrounds to community centers, safe and accessible for people of all ages. As one of the largest providers of out-of-school care, NRPA has teamed up with PHA since 2014 to offer healthier meals and more opportunities for movement to more than 228,000 of its participating youth.

Q&A: Kristine Stratton, President and Chief Executive Officer, National Recreation and Park Association

What are the real-time impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on NRPA, your operations, and your staff?

Local park and recreation professionals across the country are impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak. From staffing, to financial impacts, to making decisions to close facilities and playgrounds and to cancel programs, there are significant impacts.

From a staffing perspective, professionals are concerned about staff health and well-being. They are making decisions to keep staff home when possible, while still maintaining morale and keeping them informed on emerging issues. Agencies employ a variety of professionals, including park rangers, maintenance staff, childcare staff, and recreation center programmers, so they are having to make decisions around essential versus nonessential personnel and who to activate as part of an emergency response plan. They are also managing the mental and emotional health needs of staff, including individuals who may be impacted by COVID-19 personally; who are working extended hours and/or managing new roles; who are at increased risk for exposure through their work commitments; and who have lost or are at risk of losing employment.

From a community health and well-being perspective, agencies are taking steps to slow the spread of COVID-19 by closing indoor facilities (recreation centers, senior centers, and aquatic centers) and making decisions about closing spaces where people congregate (playgrounds, restrooms, etc.). To address these issues, agencies have had to install fencing, post signage, lock restrooms, and remove trash cans and benches. Many parks remain open, but agencies are proactively encouraging all community members to adhere to physical distancing recommendations when using parks, trails, and open spaces, as outlined in NRPA’s Joint Statement on Using Parks and Open Space While Maintaining Social Distancing.

Financially, there are significant concerns, as parks and recreation as a whole have been underfunded nationwide since the recession. As a result of facility closures and lost programming revenue, agencies nationwide will be faced with difficult decisions in the coming months. Agencies are already reporting slashing operating expenses, in some cases by freezing hiring and ramping down capital projects.

Our local parks, trails, and open spaces have always served as places where people can find respite and seek peace and restoration. During this time of uncertainty, these places are needed more than ever.

How are you maintaining continuity of services during this time of uncertainty?

As community-based providers of health and recreation services and local government organizations, park and recreation professionals are stepping up in a variety of ways to support community members at this time:

  • Agencies nationwide are stepping in to provide meals to vulnerable youth and older adults, provide childcare to essential personnel, and even open up facilities to serve as emergency shelters, food distribution points, and wash stations. Others are offering virtual programming to continue to promote health and wellness, social connections, and enrichment opportunities. Agencies are following and promoting CDC recommendations and guidance for personal hygiene, and they are adhering to cleaning and disinfection guidance for community settings.
  • Agencies have emergency management plans in place for disasters and public health events and have great relationships with local public health officials. Together, they are navigating this crisis and working closely to implement plans to ensure that essential services continue to function. In some locations, park and recreation professionals have created succession and contingency plans in the event that certain staff need to take leave.

What role do you see your sector needing to play during this time of national crisis?

At NRPA, we are serving our members by continuously updating our website with news and resources for the park and recreation field at In addition, NRPA prepared the following statement in support of the safe use of parks and open spaces during the COVID-19 outbreak. As of March 23, 2020, more than 900 national and local organizations have signed on to voice support.

Park and recreation professionals have played a key role throughout this crisis and will continue to do so. From providing essential services to our most vulnerable community members to maintaining the outdoor spaces that more people have come to rely on for physical and mental health benefits, these professionals are critical in promoting community health and well-being. One of the positive things that has emerged during this crisis has been the increase in the number of people using their local parks, trails, and open spaces and reconnecting with the outdoors. We believe that many parks, trails, and open spaces can continue to be used in a safe manner that allows people to enjoy the essential mental and physical health benefits these spaces provide. In all instances, we strongly recommend people follow local, state, and national ordinances and guidelines regarding the use of these spaces and adhere to physical distancing. We recognize that these guidelines vary from community to community.

Our local parks, trails, and open spaces have always served as places where people can find respite and seek peace and restoration. During this time of uncertainty, these places are needed more than ever. Our nation’s park and recreation professionals are working hard to maintain these spaces and keep them safe, accessible, and benefiting our communities during these challenging times. Let us all do our part to use them in a way that respects each other and public health guidance.

What advice does your organization have for Americans trying to keep healthy during the coronavirus pandemic?

  • Use your local outdoor spaces while adhering to NRPA’s guidance on using local parks, trails, and open spaces
  • Prioritize your mental health and practice self-care
  • Find ways to embed physical activity into your daily routine at home
  • Physically distance yourself, but continue to connect socially with family, friends, and colleagues
  • Try something new: start a garden at home, practice yoga, try meditation, try a new healthy recipe, or read a new book
  • Focus on your sleep and getting into a routine
  • Don’t forget to recreate! Parks and recreation are synonymous with fun and play. Even if the playground is closed, find ways to prioritize recreation and fun during these unique times: play virtual games and board games, have a creative competition with friends and family, and make laughter and smiles part of your daily routine.

For those that want to assist your organization right now, what direction are you giving and what needs do you have?

NRPA and our local park and recreation professionals work tirelessly to make people and communities healthier and happier through the power of parks and recreation. Park and recreation professionals are on the frontlines of this crisis and have emerged as local heroes and pillars of strength in their communities, stepping in to fill gaps and ensure that all people have access to what they need.

Park and recreation professionals are navigating operational challenges and financial threats while supporting their employees and community members and maintaining public spaces so that they are safe and can be used responsibly for public health benefits.

Agencies will need both financial and public support to maintain these efforts. We need partners to:

  • Lend a supportive voice and amplify the need to practice safe physical distancing to effectively implement public health measures in local parks, trails, and open spaces.
  • Provide financial and in-kind support needed to continue to provide essential services to community members, including food distribution, virtual programming, cleaning and disinfection, technology needs, and staffing.
  • Help leverage local parks, trails, and open spaces to reunite communities and bring people together once this crisis is over.
  • Work alongside NRPA and local agencies to provide additional comprehensive health and wellness services to vulnerable community members. Social service providers, behavioral health specialists, healthcare providers, and others will all be needed to engage more community members who will be in need.
  • Thank your local park and recreation staff!

Consider partnering with NRPA to ensure agencies have the resources they need to sustain these efforts, support community health and well-being, and reactivate to bring communities together when this crisis is over. Learn more about partnering with NRPA here: