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The Life of a Social Distancing Enforcer

The head of health and wellness for the Chicago Park District explains what it’s like to work as a “social distancing ambassador” on the lakefront.

Colleen Lammel-Harmon   Photo: Provided

When public parks reopened in Phase 3 of Gov. Pritzker’s “Restore Illinois” plan, Colleen Lammel-Harmon, senior project manager of health and wellness at the Chicago Park District, faced the same task as always: ensuring that Chicagoans enjoy the public parks safely.

But in the time of COVID-19, that includes the daunting task of enforcing social distancing and mask-wearing, especially on the heavily trafficked Lakefront Trail. To do so, Lammel-Harmon enlisted a corps of “social distancing ambassadors," made up of out-of-work Park District employees, like lifeguards. In recent weeks, they’ve patrolled Chicago’s parks and beaches reminding folks to keep their distance and stay out of the water. 

A 20-year veteran of the Park District, Lammel-Harmon says “it’s not new — people not following the rules,” but concedes that the rules themselves have changed. Here, she discusses the new challenges she and her ambassadors are facing.

What does a health and wellness manager normally do?

In addition to advocating for health and wellness in the parks, I’m the liaison to all the agencies in city government, especially with the public health department, and hospitals and universities. I do research projects around obesity, look at policies around healthy food and environments, and work closely with the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA).

How did you create the social distancing ambassador program, and what do ambassadors do?

We educate people on why COVID-19 is so important, how it spreads, and who the vulnerable population is. But we’re not enforcers. We have to be role models. The only way we’re going get to people wearing masks is through awareness. I’ve had to educate people on why parks are open but playgrounds are closed and why trails are open but the water is closed.

We repurposed the people not able to do their normal roles: lifeguards, recreation leaders, attendants usually at the lakefront. Lifeguards were our first pilot because they were used to being out there on the beach, saving lives, and educating people. They do the same thing every day, now it’s just on land.

Where have you been stationed yourself?

I started the first couple weeks in Lincoln Park, but we also have people in Grant Park, Washington Park, and all the beaches. The best place so far has been Promontory Point: very few people without masks. I will say that the turn at Fullerton, by Theatre on the Lake, has been tough.

What’s your approach to enforcement?

Assume no one knows what the rules are and compliment people who have masks on. I saw two women near Promontory Point wearing masks and said, “I wanted to thank you for wearing your masks.” I just gently said it loud enough so that the people next to them heard. Or, ‘That sign at the gate that said ‘Closed’ — that actually did mean the playground was closed.’ I’ve had to climb over rocks to say, ‘Hiii … Didn’t know if you knew what was going on, but …’ — and the person grumpily puts their mask on.

It’s like littering. The people who wear the masks are the ones giving dirty looks, saying ‘do your part.’ There are always people who don’t follow the rules, whether it’s littering or speeding. Social distancing ambassadors are making the new norm easier on people who want to follow the rules.

Any challenging interactions? How do you handle those?

There was a woman in Lincoln Park with her grandchild who asked for my badge and refused to listen. "What are you gonna do, make us leave?" she says. I would have expected that from a teenager. No, I am not going to make you leave. I said, “I want to make sure you know that your grandchild is at risk when they’re going down the slide and touching the swings.”

Others say, in a sarcastic way, “You want to have me wear a mask, go buy me one.” Or, “Try to make me” — and then they walk away. That’s where I’ve been diligent on promoting the people next to them. You have to have the facts. When I see other ambassadors walk up in their powdery blue shirts and people put their masks on without anyone having to say anything, that’s when I think, “OK, it’s catching on.”

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