A2 COVID-19: Colin Smith

May 30, 2020 | A2 COVID-19

Colin Smith has worked for the city of Ann Arbor since 1998 and has been the Director of our Parks and Recreation Services department since 2007. He oversees a lot of public activities that are going to look very different (if they happen at all) this summer season. In our conversation, Colin talks about the need to stay connected, how our communities have changed (just walking down the street) and his worries about how loss of connection can impact people who are most isolated.

This is part of a series of interviews with Ann Arbor residents, talking about personal experiences adjusting to (and adapting during) the COVID-19 crisis. This interview was conducted remotely via the ZOOM application. I appear in this video as “Mrs. Nelson” – we talked over the ZOOM account that I use primarily with my preschool class. Interviewed May 21, 2020

Today I’m talking to Colin Smith, who is the city of Ann Arbor’s Parks and Recreation Services Director. I thank you for talking to me today!

Absolutely. Happy to be here.

I’m going to ask you the same questions I’m asking everybody. My first question is: what kind of adjustments or changes have you had to make in your life since the pandemic, either personally or professionally?

A lot, as I’m sure is the case for everybody. On, I suppose, a professional level, I’ve essentially been working from home since March 12th or 13th. There have only been a couple times that I’ve actually come in. That’s just a very kind of strange thing to get used to, because usually in my job I see a whole lot of people every day and a lot of places. Staying at home and seeing people through the computer has really been an adjustment.

I suppose… what else… I no longer have a commute for the most bit which is nice, so I have an hour in my day back that I didn’t have before. And, kind of on a personal level, one of the things that I like to do for exercise is to swim and I have not been able to do that anywhere because obviously all the pools closed back in March and then outdoor pools now won’t be able to open for a bit.

It’s an adjustment across the board. 

One of the things that we’ve all been dealing with is the direction to stay home as much as possible but then we have basic needs that we need to meet, we need to go out in public places to take care of like, for example, getting groceries. What kind of precautions are you taking in those situations where we have to go out in public places?

We shop less than we did, so instead of periodically stopping at the grocery store, it’s maybe once every week to ten days to two weeks even. So there’s more of kind of a plan before we go to make sure that we get everything that we need. And then wearing the face masks, of course, every time that we’re at a store, indoors – even outdoors, when I’m around kind of a number of people I think it’s a good thing to still actually do that. If I’m out on a walk, maybe not.

Because we’re spending so much time indoors and so much time among all the same people that we’re isolating with, it’s easy to feel cooped up. I’m curious, what kind of strategies do you have to overcome those feelings that you’ve been looking at the same four walls every day and you’re tired of talking to all the same people every day?

Yeah, just really trying to stay kind of busy with activities and things. We’ve had kind of a lot of meals at home that we prepare that we wouldn’t usually either have the time to take to do. There’s been a lot… banana bread, is what I was starting to say here (smiles). My girlfriend makes extremely good banana bread and I’ve become addicted to it, which is a problem, something that’s going to have to resolve as we come out of this. 

We spend a lot of time, also, with the dog. We actually have a dog that is part of an assistance program. So we keep him for a year to a year and a half. He can, he is allowed into stores, and he’s also allowed to go to work and all those things with us, so he hasn’t had that opportunity in the last two plus months. He’s been also cooped up in the house, he’s kind of happy that we’re home all the time but I think he misses the ability to go in to stores and to City Hall and all of this. It will be interesting to see how he reacts when he’s allowed to interact with everybody again. I think he’s going to be excited, too.

I think you might have already answered this question a little bit, but I’m asking people about what special precautions that you take when you’re going outside – not a grocery store or a space that’s enclosed – but just going outdoors?

Yeah, I certainly keep a mask with me, even when I’m out for a walk at a time that I don’t think I’m going to run into anybody, just because if I do come into contact with people I want to be able to put that on. You can see, too, that a lot of people have kind of adopted all of the guidelines that they’re supposed to do. So I’m kind of going one way on a path in a park and then there’s a person coming the other way, we usually both kind of step off and nod, that’s just started to become the new kind of normal for most people. 

We have seen recently highly visible demonstrations: people complaining that they’re sick of the conditions we’ve been living under, they’re sick of the restrictions, they’re ready to get back to normal. Would you have any comments or thoughts to people who are expressing these ideas, who are just sort of like, “enough is enough, I can’t take it anymore”?

Yeah, I mean it’s hard. It’s a hard situation for everybody. I can understand the desire to get back to normalcy and to do things that you want to do. I think the ability to protest and to share those views is important but when you do so you need to do so with the consideration of others in mind, do so safely if at all possible. I think that what we’re going through now is new to all of us. It’s a pandemic, it’s unprecedented for how we live. I hope that the majority of people can err on the side of caution and to do things to keep themselves safe and to keep others safe, understanding very much that there is a desire to get back to doing the things that we all love to do.

For me, this weekend, Memorial Day is always kind of a big one for the parks. It’s when we traditionally open up the swimming pools, the start of the summer season. I know that there are a number of people who are extremely disappointed that we are not able to do that. I can empathize with that, because I swim actually myself and I would love to be doing that this weekend. I just think we all need to err on the side of caution and care for ourselves and care for others.

The positive out of all of this is the staff that we have working full time for the parks. The things that they do – the people that actually operate the liveries and the pools and other facilities like that – they really love what they do, they have a passion for it, they believe that it is important for the community. It has been an incredibly hard thing for them to kind of accept that there are certain things that we just can’t do right now. We’re very very lucky to have people like that who are working.

We’ll adjust. It will be a summer where I hope that there’s other things that we’re able to do to still reach out to the community and stay in touch, you know?

Is there anything else that I didn’t ask about, that you think is worth talking about?

Yeah, one thing that I forgot to mention, really in terms of how things every day have changed. I haven’t been able to see my mother since early March. She has Alzheimers and is in a memory care facility. Very quickly, at the outset, there were restrictions in place so that you’re not actually able to visit. That’s just been the hardest thing out of all of this, to not see somebody that I used to see almost every day. 

Every day I talk to her, too. She’s not sure why there can’t be visitors, so we kind of have to explain that and go through it again. I certainly hope… I understand, again I understand the reason why that’s in place, totally support it. At some stage, though, I also start to wonder: when is the effect on people who are in those facilities, when does the effect of not being able to see people become detrimental to them? It’s just an impossibly hard thing to balance what the right thing is to do, because I know the reason I can’t see her now is for her safety. But I also know it’s having just an awful effect on her. I hope that comes to an end soon.

All situations and all crisis can create opportunities, too. It also does provide an opportunity to see the good in people. Something that I’ve really noticed, just kind of in our neighborhood, is that everyone is out walking, they’re spending time outside with themselves and their families. The level of interaction – even though it’s from afar, like the other side of the path or the other side of the street – there’s a lot more community actually being built, almost, through this. I see more and more people kind of acknowledge other people, say hello to them and comment on the day and that. So I think in some ways it’s allowed people to slow down and return to some things that perhaps you don’t do when you’re caught up in the rat race of moving as fast as you can every day.

You see people certainly doing a lot of things which are kind, throughout this whole pandemic, finding ways to help other people. I hope those are lesson which we can always be reminded of.

I hope so too. Thank you for talking to me today! I appreciate it!

Absolutely. I appreciate it, too. Thanks.