Change, adapt and then change again.

That seems to be the motto of parks and recreation departments across the state as they attempt to provide activities for not only children but adults as well during the winter of the coronavirus pandemic.

“With the year we’re having, we have to think outside the box,” said Ryan Sommer, the director of the Saco Parks and Recreation Department. “Everything is different from things we normally run.”

There are no youth travel basketball games, no cheering competitions. You can’t just walk in to a gym for a basketball shootaround or to play a game of pickleball.

Instead, recreation departments are building outdoor ice rinks, renting snowshoes or offering esports – a video game competition – for the first time. In one town, Farmington, everything is online, from instructional tutorials on skiing or ice fishing to sign language and yoga classes. They haven’t had in-person programming since last March 16.

“We all miss the kids, we all want to see the kids again,” said Matt Foster, the director of the Farmington Recreation Department. “We will return to in-person programming as soon as we can and when we feel it’s safe to do so. But I don’t think virtual programming will go away.”


Foster said the department’s videos, which include one on mental health, have been viewed over 100,000 times and in 14 countries. “We’ve been doing our hardest to support our community as best we can,” he said.

Robin Cogger, the director of the York Parks and Recreation Department, said it’s been a challenging year as rec departments try to stay relevant during a time where COVID-19 safety protocols limit your options.

“We ask ourselves, ‘How do we stay in our lane? How do we do what we do best?’ “ she said. “You’ve got to be creative.”

And, said Peter Bingham, the recreation director in Cumberland, “You’ve got to lean on your colleagues too. We don’t all have all the answers. If we do have an answer, we share it.”

The rec departments follow the state’s Community Sports Guidelines, which provide specific guidelines for not only what activities can be held but when and at what level (individual drills or games). Those guidelines are also paired with the Maine Department of Education’s color-coded system that determines the risk of community spread of the COVID-19 virus. If a county has a “yellow” rating, the state recommends that “community sports should suspend competitions and group practices.”

That further hamstrings recreation departments in Androscoggin, Cumberland, Oxford and York counties – all currently yellow. High school athletic programs in those counties are also shut down.


“We’re choosing to work with the local school programs to minimize the risk of infection,” said Scott Segal, the parks and recreation head in Poland.

Rec departments that are in “green” counties are able to offer some of the traditional programs. But even those look different. In Bangor, which is in Penobscot County, the rec department is offering youth basketball. This week they began a skills and drills program. Next week they hope to offer travel basketball with games – but with a difference.

“The travel piece will involve only Bangor kids and they’ll play at the parks and rec center as opposed to traveling all over the place,” said Tracy Willette, the rec department head. He noted that registration for both those programs is about half what it normally would be.

As in Bangor, Portland is offering youth skills and drills basketball programs. But according to recreation manager Marie Davis, enrollment is down considerably. Portland is also offering swimming lessons, as is Cumberland.

Brunswick is allowing people to reserve an hour in the gym to shoot baskets. No games are allowed.

For now, rec departments are looking outside. “People need to get out of their houses and do stuff,” said Nick Cliche, of the Portland recreation department.


Many are constructing outdoor skating rinks while some have purchased snowshoes and skates for rentals. Others are offering Alpine ski programs, but the participants have to provide their own transportation to the mountains.

In Brunswick, 18 people signed up for cross country skiing, and another 10 for its Outdoor Adventure Program, open to middle school students.

“We’re just trying to do as much stuff outdoors as we can,” said Troy Smith, the deputy parks and rec director in Brunswick.

Even then, he said, “everything is dependent on the weather.”

The lack of snow in southern Maine is hindering efforts for Nordic programs. The city of Portland has five outdoor skating surfaces, including the pond at Deering Oaks. None is open right now because temperatures haven’t been cold enough to provide a safe surface.

In York, they had hoped to have a curling arena. “Mother Nature is not cooperating,” said Coggins.


Eleven recreation departments across the state have formed an esports league that will play a five-week season beginning Jan. 16, followed by playoffs. Teams will play Rocket League, FIFA 2011, Madden 2021, NBA2K 2021 and Super Smash Bros. Some towns are also playing Fortnite. The participants will play from home.

The towns have partnered with GGLeagues, a Chicago-based company that provides the online platform.

Whitney Dorsett, a recreation manager for the South Portland Recreation Department, was a driving force behind the esports league.

“We all definitely saw a need,” she said. “The kids are already playing the games, why not give them a constructive and safe way to do it? And we don’t know what’s going to happen to indoor recreation based on COVID.”

“We went back and forth on this, as far as pushing people to video games,” said Andy Kaherl, of the York rec department. “But in the times that we’re in, with the kids playing anyway, we thought we’d give them an outlet to play other kids.”

Besides, said Kaherl, “this doesn’t require cold weather.”

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