Parks & Rec Update: Beaches, Ferries and Cobber North

The Parks & Rec board had a meeting on May 28, the first since February. Parks & Rec director Joe Siciliano gave a recap of his department’s work during the town hall shut down. He said inside staff kept busy working remotely. For example, they responded to over 9,028 emails from March 22 to April 30, and ran a full beach pass and marina renewal operation.

As of Monday June 1, staff are back in Town Hall offices with a rotating schedule as permitted with State guidance.

Outside staff, including marina staff, moved to a three day-a-week schedule.

“I went to the union and got special permission to work our folks Monday, Wed, Fri and Tuesday, Thursday Saturday,” Siciliano said. “That commenced March 22 to May 4, when they returned to a five day work week.”

He said normally Saturday is ‘a premium day’ where employees get paid overtime, but he negotiated with the union not to make Saturday a premium day.

Siciliano said Parks & Rec had to respond first to the shut downs ordered by the State, and then react to and implement plans for the gradual reopenings, and all the while state guidance continued to change.

“We come up with a plan today and the plan changes, the next day we change the plan,” he said.

From March 22 through most of May, Siciliano, as the department head, was part of the First Selectman’s Covid-19 Task Force includes the Police Chief, major department heads, the First Selectman and Town Administrator. The group had conversations daily, including some weekends and worked toward reopening the town using state guidance.

Gary Dell’Albate asked how close are we getting to the maximum park capacity at Greenwich’s parks.

Siciliano said between 100 to 130 people a day have been coming to walk through Cos Cob Park.

At Greenwich Point, where there is a maximum of 500 cars allowed in the park at one time, they had not hit the maximum since the reopening.

“We’re seeing somewhere between 900 and 1,250 (a day) cars and close to 1,800 people a day on average. There have been some spikes with nicer weather.”

He said operations manager Craig Whitcomb, is at Greenwich Point every day, along with monitoring staff and an additional police presence.

“Most of the people have been very respectful. There is a lot of self policing. Right now the beach lifeguards have been working as monitors,” he said. “We haven’t staffed that up yet. The next phase of reopening could come in the next few weeks and might allow people some time on the sand and allow people to dip in the water a little bit. That could happen in the next couple weeks.”

Public pools have not been given a go-ahead to open by the State Health Dept.

“We have a plan in place in case that guidance comes down to offer limited pool use,” he said, referring to the Greenwich Pool at Byram Park. “Every one of these takes a protocol to be established. It’s detailed and extensive, and takes staff to manage.”

He said there is discussion on the task force to expand the hours at Greenwich Point and include swimming and sitting in the sand, and that could be announced in coming weeks.

“We’re taking a cautious approach,” he said.

“I give Fred (First Selectman Fred Camillo) a ton of credit because I know his phone is blowing up every day with people who want their lives back,” he said. “He’s been cautious and looking at the numbers.”

Siciliano said there is a direct correlation between the number of cases and deaths from Covid-19 and what people are being allowed to do. The town is closely watching numbers to see if they escalate.

“We want to see the counts in the next two weeks. We all know the incubation period is 3-10 days. We’re concerned about spreading our wings too soon. Why open and then have to close if the numbers escalate?”

As for the boats to Island Beach and Great Captain Island, the Parks & Rec director said the ferries have been in Bridgeport in dry dock.

“The island beach ferry is scheduled to run on June 13 but it will most likely not happen because the boats aren’t back from the yard, and need to be inspected by the Coast Guard.

“We can’t put 200 people on a boat for a trip, and we can’t seat 200 people on Island beach,” he warned. “We’re in the discussion phase of protocols for how we can do it. Do we do one boat instead of two, or abbreviated service?”

He said the intent is to have limited service and make the experience “as normal as possible.”

In the meantime, inspections have to be coordinated including one at the dry dock and one in the water.

Since March 22 all five Parks & Rec superintendents have been in the office daily.

“I want to thank them. They were here every day. We’ve done an enormous amount of business in Parks & Rec in the last several months.”

He said during the shutdown the department only had general pass renewal traffic.

As soon as the announcement to open Cos Cob Park overnight there were 500 applications for park passes.

“And as soon we we talked about opening Byram Park and Greenwich Point we had 4,000 applicants,” he added, noting that each application is for multiple family members and include golf, tennis and park passes. “That’s a significant amount of revenue so we’ve got to get them processed. And we were doing it from home.”

With staff back in the offices at town hall, productivity will increase.

File photo of the patio at The Griff golf course.
Partners in the Back Country Barbecue at The Griff, left to right: Kevin Bourke, Steve Leininger and Mark Pruner. Photo: Leslie Yager
Kevin Bourke, Steve Leininger and Mark Pruner at Backcountry Barbecue and Grill. Oct 2019

In his update on the town golf course, The Griff, Siciliano said, “There was a lot of pushing and shoving about opening the golf course.” The course is now open 7:00am to 7:00pm.

“We are averaging 140 to 160 rounds a day,” he said adding there is 10 minute staggering at the golf course. “We’re booked out almost every single day and there is a significant amount of range business, which is set up for social distancing.”

Siciliano said there has been a change in the golf course restaurant people and Backcountry Barbecue and Grill is now Cobber North, managed by Caren Vizzo St. John.

He said the LLC with the existing contract with the town remains in place so no RFP or bidding was required to make the change, and that the town attorney had been consulted.

“We were put on notice from the three partners in the LLC (Backcountry Barbecue and Grill LLC) that the business was going bad and they couldn’t provide service going forward. What has happened – and it was finalized by the town law department – they sold their LLC shares to a fourth person who has now become a member of the LLC. The LLC we contracted with still exists.”

The Parks & Rec director said there is a new financial partner in the existing LLC, and Caren Vizzo St. John, will be the new provider of service in the restaurant, now called Cobber North, which is a Parks & Rec concession.

“She opened on Saturday (May 23). I think she has the right approach and attitude. I spoke to her over the holiday weekend and even though there was questionable weather, she had a good reception by the golfers and people are starting to find out she’s up there.”

“She’ll provide that service for at least two years – this year and next year – and there is a two-year option going forward after that. She’s very energetic and knowledgeable of the restaurant business. She has name recognition and a proven record in town….She has a more diverse menu than the BBQ restaurant.”

Reached by email, Mark Pruner, one of the original three principals in Backcountry Barbecue and Grill, explained the reshuffle.

“Kevin Bourke, one of the original members of the LLC, is still a member. The only thing that changed is that Caren bought my and Steve’s (Steve Leininger) interest in the LLC,” Pruner said. “Legally, nothing has changed, but operationally Caren is now running the restaurant rather than Steve.”

Parks & Rec Board member Mike Bocchino asked about potential for youth sports to resume in the state’s Phase 2 on June 20.

“That could allow for at least a decent season for some athletics, especially baseball, lacrosse and soccer. If those (restrictions) are lifted, will we be ready to open these fields for play?” Bocchino asked.

Siciliano said summer is the off-season for those sports and normally the town does not get a lot of requests from user groups in the summer.

“We, as the property owner, have a responsibility,” Siciliano said. “Hypothetically, if we were to let a user group go on, that’s not a decision I make solely – that’s the First Selectman’s committee, and we’d want to see the protocol.”

Siciliano said reopening parks and beaches is a higher priority than summer football camp, for example.

“Our sole effort right now is to try to get facilities open with protocols that serve the masses,” he said.