A trio of teens hand out free masks and help customers operate the parking kiosks.
The Gani family call Rye Town Park “Central Park with a beach” and come all season long.
Jack McRedmond, Ryan Becton, and Andrew Marroquin, who work as parking attendants, found ways to stay cool over the July 4th weekend.
Safely distanced at Oakland Beach
Rye Town Park and Oakland Beach:
Open for Business and Managing COVID-19 Concerns
By Jamie Jensen
Like most communities across the country, anxieties about Covid-19 heighten when people gather in numbers at our public beaches and parks. Rye Town Park and Oakland Beach staff are no strangers to these fears and anxieties. A careful read of various social media posts on closed Facebook pages — Rye Moms, the Rye Town Park Alliance, and The Port Chester, Rye, Harrison Mom/Dad Groups — suggest that the debate over enforcing social distancing and face mask wearing is alive and well. Locals are also complaining through emails to our elected officials while privately wringing their hands and circulating pictures of misbehaving youth. Demands that officials enforce the rules are loud and clear, but what enforcement should look like continues to be unclear.
Hoping to understand (and verify) the voices on all sides, I set out on Fourth of July weekend to observe behavior and ask staff and parkgoers directly about their impressions, experience, and anxieties. Were people social distancing? And when they couldn’t, were they wearing masks? I asked staff how the public was treating them? How were they enforcing social distancing and mask wearing? My questions to parkgoers were more wide-ranging: Why are you here in the park instead of at the beach? Why are you not wearing a mask? Do you have a mask with you? Do you feel safe? Are you enjoying yourself?
Here’s what I saw and heard. High school and college-age youth from Rye and Port Chester are the public face of the park staff. They are very first ones you meet when coming to the park. Dressed in turquoise RTP staff T-shirts and masks, Ryan Becton, Andrew Marroquin, and Jack McRedmond were gathered under a tree just north of the growing cluster of cars parked on the lawn adjacent to the pond when I stopped by the park this past Sunday. Poised and easy going, they shared that they are working as parking attendants 40 to 50 hours or more per week at $13 an hour. Asked what they do when it’s not busy, they assured me there is plenty of work for them to do and that they are not sent home unless it rains or thunders. When asked if they were getting patron complaints, they said not so much. This was also the case for Chelsea, Molly, and Casey, three Port Chester teens who are responsible for providing free masks to park patrons and supervising the parking kiosks located by the pavilions. Having worked for the park for a couple of years, all three girls were so happy to have summer jobs.
Returning on Monday, I met three older college-age women working outside the park permit office. These more seasoned staff did not think complaining was any greater than last year but did reveal that some patrons “will look at you like you have two heads” if you ask them to wear a mask. According to the staff, the patrons most likely “to drive a staff person to tears” are usually the ones who are turned away because the park or beach is full. “When that happens, we ask Jose or Russ for back up.” (Note: Resident and non-resident permit holders are not turned away, even when the back lot is full.)
Russ Gold, the park director, thinks his entire staff deserve citations for service. “We ask these kids (some as young as 15) to show up every day, face large crowds at their own personal risk, and do their jobs serving patrons with a smile.” Knowing it is next to impossible to get 100% mask compliance, Gold has made the importance of encouraging mask-wearing and leading by example clear to his staff. If a patron needs help, he tells his crew, “Tell them you would be happy to do so if they would just please put on their mask first.”
Currently, only two park constables are certified to give out parking tickets and there are no personnel certified to enforce other rules with citations. For the park rangers and lifeguards charged with monitoring the beach gates, the waterfront, and keeping the public safe, engaging with patrons around Covid-19 is a bit trickier. Sitting on stools just outside the cashier’s booth and at the center of the action, the rangers are expected by much of the public to “enforce” mask-wearing. When asked about the challenge of their role, the two rangers on duty shared, “We can’t force people to wear masks. All we can do is encourage them to do so.”
Knowing that residents assume the problem of social distancing and mask- wearing at the beach is largely a problem of unsupervised youth, I set out to investigate teen compliance. Walking up to a group of five teen-age girls squashed together on a bench outside Barley Beach House, I asked, “Why don’t you wear masks?” These polite youth simply stated, “No one is really making us wear them.” Turned out this group of girls are part of a local swim team and had come from all over the county (Mt. Vernon, Harrison, Rye, and New Rochelle) to be at the beach together. They all carry masks with them and assured me that they take them out when expected. “As teammates”, the Rye teen made clear, “we have been quarantining together” all season.
While overlooking the beach from the pavilions, one patron complained, “The beach is too crowded. I might as well be in South Florida.” With further probing, I directed his attention away from the mask-less sunbathers sitting with their families/friends to those moving around the beach. After a moment, this same patron offered a qualifier. “Yes, it seems most people wear a mask.”
A few minutes later, I approached a young masked couple setting up their chairs under a tree on the lawn just north of the middle gate. When asked why they didn’t sit on the beach, the woman responded, “I wouldn’t feel safe. It’s too crowded.” As we stood chatting about Covid-19 and the park rules, she qualified her statement, “The beachgoers look closer together than perhaps they actually are. It’s harder to tell just how close they are from here.”
Anxiety about Covid-19 wasn’t even an issue for the Gani family, who have been coming together from across the county on weekends for years. Why not the beach, I asked? “It’s too hot on the beach today and the park is a lot less crowded.”
First impressions are a funny thing. We interpret what we see in ways that reinforce our prejudices, anxieties, and fears. My direct questions about Covid-19 fear, mask compliance, and social distancing bristled no feathers, and the responses were far from defensive. What I discovered on July 5th and 6th is that patrons and staff from right here in Rye as well as across the county are a lot more responsible and well-meaning than we give them credit for. The methods of keeping folks safe on the beach are far from perfect, but as a mask-wearing park fan living with asthma, I think the staff are doing a fine job.
For Rye residents who want to avoid crowds but are considering a day at Oakland Beach, holidays and weekend mornings are reserved for residents and permit holders only. Mondays through Thursdays are open to all visitors. For more details, go to https://www.townofryeny.com/rye-town-park-and-beach.