HOWELL TOWNSHIP, NJ – The COVID-19 pandemic has been a very long and tough road, not only for children of Howell, but children across America. Youth sports and outdoor activity had been shut down from March through July in some cases. Children who play sports were finally getting part of their life back. Families were finally getting fresh air in the great outdoors, but this week, one man in Howell Township decided it was time to end it all again.
Earlier this week, Howell Township Business Manager Brian Geoghegan, a Toms River resident, ordered a system-wide shutdown of all township parks and outdoor recreational facilities. Geoghegan said his decision to shut down the parks, and effectively all youth sports programs using those parks was due to an increase of Orthodox Jewish residents from neighboring Lakewood Township using those parks. Geoghegan, according to Berger did not consult the mayor or the township council prior to making his unilateral decision to shut down the town’s parks to keep Lakewood residents from using them.
After the decision, many in town felt Geoghegan’s order was draconian and would negatively impact children in the community and failed to address the actual problem of non-compliance by some individuals using the parks. After all, sports leagues in town have been complying, in some cases, over complying with state and federal health guidelines, enforcing social distancing, mask-wearing, temperature checks, and making participants in their programs sign waiver forms. Spectator participation has been kept low, socially distant and safe across town from Howell’s many organized youth sports leagues.
League officials couldn’t figure out why their programs and the children and families in those programs were being penalized because of the reportedly reckless behavior of others, by Geoghegan’s account, not even township residents.
On Wednesday, Mayor Theresa Berger and Councilman John Bonevich lead the charge against Geoghegan’s forced shutdown of the town’s parks and later in the day, Geoghegan backed off his ban on the outdoors.
Many of you “took abrupt issue” with his decision, the out-of-town political appointee said of Howell residents.
“We have received a great deal of feedback over the past day relating to the closure of parks in Howell, some positive, some negative,” Geoghegan, of Toms River, said in a statement. “Many of you took issue with the abrupt nature of the closing and its impact on youth sports leagues in Howell.”
Geoghegan, who is also facing a charge of workplace harassment against a township whistleblower said the closure order was issued as a result of increased complaints relating to the use of Howell’s parks, and the failure of people to follow protocols relating to social distancing and mask-wearing.
“The closure order was worded succinctly so that there was no room for interpretation,” Geoghegan said, justifying his unilateral decision. “The Township needed a temporary hard stop on park usage to ensure the safety of everyone. As soon as the closure order was issued, we began contacting (and were contacted by) the Directors of our youth sports leagues to discuss the situation.”
After realizing most of Howell’s organized sports leagues have a plan in place relating to COVID-19, Geoghegan said he reviewed those plans and will allow them to continue.
“I’ve reviewed them again in light of recent experience to see if they need to be updated or modified,” he said. “I run happy to say that our sports leagues are an example to us all. They have observed proper protocols and have taken responsibility for their own safety and the safety of others. ”
Geoghegan said he will now allow sports leagues to return to the fields, but keeping the town’s playgrounds and “high touch” areas closed. Now, with the help of his political friends in Lakewood, Geoghegan said the Lakewood Department of Public Works will be sanitizing Howell Township’s parks and sports fields.
“Once our parks are sanitized, we anticipate re-opening them to passive recreation; this should occur over the next several days,” he said. “Finally, a number of residents have asked why we cannot restrict the use of our parks to Township residents. The answer is simple – it is not legal. There have been instances where other towns have tried to restrict the use of their parks to their own residents. They were sued not only for unlawful discrimination but also for violating the terms of New Jersey Green Acres grants, which require parks to be open to all.”