Amid COVID-19 and budget constraints, Coventry cancels summer programs

Most of the usual Coventry Park and Recreation programs have officially been called off this summer, and the Briar Point Beach will remain closed for the season. Pictured: Beach-goers take a dip in Tiogue Lake during a visit to the beach last summer. 

COVENTRY — It’s a quiet summer in Coventry. 

“The pandemic has definitely changed our plans,” Raena Blumenthal, the town’s parks and recreation director, said last week of having to call off much of the department's programming this summer. 

Facing various restrictions related to COVID-19 as well as significant cuts to its budget, the Coventry Parks and Recreation Department has had to make some difficult decisions regarding how it serves the community over the next couple of months. 

Briar Point Beach will remain closed for the season. Despite initially considering a delayed opening once restrictions loosened, Blumenthal said it's been decided that there's still too much uncertainty surrounding the health risks posed by the pandemic.

Staffing constraints also affect the ability to open the beach, she added.  

In his proposed Fiscal Year 2021 budget, Interim Town Manager Ed Warzycha cut some $385,000 from the Parks and Recreation Department in an effort to avoid raising the tax rate. Coronavirus restrictions would have made organizing much of the usual summer programming tough, anyway, he said. 

A significant portion of the department’s budget cuts comes from its temporary employees line. There are some funds allocated for maintenance staff, but there’s not enough to cover beach and camp staffing, for example. 

The town’s summer-long day camp has been called off this year, as well.

The Parks and Recreation Department had come up with alternative plans for camp, Blumenthal said, but Warzycha ultimately chose to hold off on running the program this year.  

“We did present some options,” Blumenthal said. “We did try, as a community, to serve everybody.”

She added that hosting hundreds of children at the town's facilities would be inadvisable amid so much pandemic-related uncertainty.

The town’s basketball league has also been canceled, as has its outdoor concert series.

Featuring a different band each week, the free summer concert events have become a favorite among Coventry residents since they started four years ago. 

“We waited until the absolute last second to make that decision,” Blumenthal said, adding that Warzycha, “erring on the side of caution,” determined earlier this week that it would be best not to hold those events this year, either. 

Still, the summer won’t be a total wash, and Blumenthal is staying optimistic about her department’s future. 

“I’m looking at this as an opportunity,” she said. “I look at this as an opportunity to move forward, to work together with the team that I have to make sure to provide everything the community needs moving forward.”

A drive-in movie event at the end of August will give residents a chance to catch a family-friendly film from the safety of their own vehicles. With help from donations, the department has rented a 40-foot inflatable screen, and viewers will be able to listen to the film through their radios. 

“It’s really just going to be a very fun family event,” Blumenthal said, adding that a second drive-in event is being planned for October. “It’s something new.”

With more time on their hands this summer, Blumenthal and the other parks and recreation employees are also working on plans for some fun events this fall. The department anticipates continuing its Halloween “Spooktacular,” for example, although it will be modified to accommodate safety guidelines. 

“It’s a balance, keeping everybody safe and also providing necessary programs to the community,” Blumenthal said. 

The department is also exploring the possibility of offering cultural activities, like music lessons and arts and crafts, and is looking into expanding some of its adult and teen programming. And, assuming the funding is available, programs like summer camps, the basketball league and the summer concert series will resume next year. 

“We’re just focused on creating a really great fall, revamping our policies and making sure everything runs smoothly moving forward,” Blumenthal said. “Right now, we’re just focusing on this next step.”

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