When COVID-19 caused everything to shut down, Tish Dobson went to work to figure out how to safely reopen the amenities that she believes the people at The Preserve at Wilderness Lake have come to rely on — as a source of joy, in their daily lives.
“We were shut down March the 16th for COVID,” she said, and the governor’s order affected the community’s amenities that include The Wilderness Lodge, Activities Center, Bath House & Spa, Nature Center, movie theater, pools and tennis courts.
“While we were shut down, I went to work immediately within a couple of days — because I knew we would have to have a plan,” said Dobson, the community’s lodge manager.
The challenge was this: “How were we going to open the doors to the facility, but yet keep everyone safe, and keep the building clean and sanitized?
“During COVID, when everything was shut down, we wanted to make sure that they (residents) knew that we were still here working,” she said.
The efforts made by Dobson, and approved by the board and the management company, garnered an award from Government Technology Magazine, presented by AT&T.
Award winners were announced from throughout the nation, in a Dec. 15 virtual ceremony. While focusing on the use of technology, the contest named winners in the categories of citizens, operations and leaders.
Dobson, who lives in Lutz, was recognized in the category of technology innovation leadership among special districts, in the southeastern region of the United States.
Although her name is on the award, she doesn’t consider it her personal award.
“I represent the community, I represent the board and I represent the management company (Rizzetta & Company).”
The Preserve at Wilderness Lake Community Development District, was established 20 years ago, in Land O’ Lakes. It has 958 homes, and between 3,200 to 3,300 residents, said Dobson, who has been the lodge manager there for 15 years.
In announcing Dobson’s award, the magazine reported the lodge manager responded proactively to the sudden onset of the pandemic with a comprehensive plan that CDDs across Florida used as a blueprint.
That plan, according to the magazine, included:
- Shutting down communal spaces, which was executed through email, automated messages and custom signage
- Informing residents and transitioning to a virtual community space through e-blasts, a website and newsletters, and initially holding public board meetings over Zoom
- Reopening with new social distancing policies and equitable access to scarce time slots and spaces in public venues, which was achieved through automated online and phone reservations
Dobson said the plan includes specific sanitation protocols and a specific schedule to ensure spaces were kept safe. It also includes health precautions, such as masks, social distancing and staggering events, to avoid crowding. Plus, she said, there’s hand sanitizer everywhere.
Capacity has been reduced for amenity buildings to ensure good air circulation, UV lights have been installed in the HVAC system for disinfection, and doors are kept open to keep air flowing, she said.
At the movie theater, for instance, there are empty rows between guests, to achieve social distancing. In the meeting room, board members are spread out at separate tables, and audience seating has been arranged to leave space between people.
Getting people together again, safely
Gradually, the community has been adding events.
It began around June with a story time for tots, typically an activity held indoors.
“We decided to take it outdoors, at our playground, and incorporate outside activities, with a story, with a snack and a little craft, geared toward the story,” Dobson said.
“A typical event would last two hours. We increased the time to four hours, so that we could stagger the time frames when the families were coming in. That way, they could visit each station, without feeling that they were being crowded, and not feeling safe.”
In October, it offered its annual Haunted House event, in its Nature Center.
“Each family had the opportunity to go in, just as a family, and enjoy all the scares.
“Of course, we had several doors that were open. Then, we would spray the room down with Lysol, and then the next family would come in.
“We always put the Haunted House on for two nights. Between the two days, we had about 200 people come to that event,” she said.
Throughout the pandemic, a primary question has been: “How can you keep the community engaged?” Dobson said.
“We keep the red carpet rolled out for our residents,” she said, and we didn’t want COVID-19 to prevent that.
“When you’re locked at home, and then your lodge — your fun place — is closed, too, that’s awful,” Dobson said.
“It was tough when it closed because we, as staff, missed the residents,” she said.
The lodge is all about, “What extra service can we do to help somebody have a great day?” Dobson said, it’s as simple as offering a cup of coffee, or helping someone who’s having trouble logging onto the internet.
“You need to get out and just be able to sit on a chair on a dock, or go to a movie theater and watch a movie, and just decompress.
“When we opened the doors, it was like a sigh of relief. Everyone was happy, from the residents to the staff — it was just like, ‘Yes, some normalcy again.’
“They’re used to coming to the lodge because the lodge is the fun place.
“They can just kick back, enjoy the facility.
“You don’t have to worry about politics here.
“It’s just fun. You come here to take a breather and just to enjoy life,” Dobson said.
Published January 27, 2021