Staff reflections during a pandemic: Stephan Bontrager on getting soaked at the Point

By March 26, 2020 Blog

As the world adjusts to a new way of living and working during the COVID-19 pandemic, we asked the Riverlife staff to reflect on how the new reality might impact our work to reclaim, restore and promote Pittsburgh’s riverfronts.

Stephan Bontrager is Vice President of Communications and Outreach. He’s been at Riverlife since 2009.

What do you do during a time of quarantine when your job is to bring people together?

I’ve worked at Riverlife for over a decade. During that time, I’ve had the very fun job of planning many, many events to celebrate new riverfront parks or improvements. One that comes to mind is the ceremony we planned a few years ago for 4,000 people to welcome back the Point State Park fountain after Riverlife helped lead the effort to renovate the Point.

The crowds were waiting patiently around the fountain basin. Boats surrounded all sides of the Point and the air was heavy with anticipation. The governor was in town, tasked with flipping the switch to turn on the new pumps for the 150-foot column of water after the old ones had been broken and dormant for the past three years.

As soon as the water was flowing and the crowds were cheering, a huge gust of wind blew and scattered the column of water, drenching the elected officials, brass band, and donors sitting in the front row. People scrambled off the stage to avoid getting wet. A musician in a soaked tuxedo dumped water out of his tuba. It was mortifying.

That is, until everyone–including those who were drenched–started laughing and applauding. A few kids started dancing in the spray. Pittsburgh’s beloved fountain was back as an iconic part of the city skyline, and we were unified in being wet but happy at this milestone.

Moments like that made me realize how much I love the social aspect of my work, especially when it brings people out to experience the riverfront trails and parks together.

Our team was in the middle of planning several events to promote Pittsburgh’s riverfronts when the COVID-19 crisis hit. The Riverlife staff began working remotely on March 13 and had to immediately reassess our calendar and priorities, including canceling and rescheduling those events. With all these new daily needs and a world in emergency mode, we had to ask ourselves if people will even have the capacity or desire to get together again for group events when this pandemic passes.

While we’re still figuring that out, one thing is resoundingly clear. You can’t keep Pittsburghers away from the rivers.

I’ve been amazed at the number of social media posts I’ve seen of people using the riverfronts as a refuge from the confines of their houses. Of course you’ve gotta follow local and federal guidelines for outdoor exercise and social distancing; if a park or trail looks crowded, you shouldn’t risk going there right now.

But seeing how much people value Pittsburgh’s outdoor public open spaces during this tough time has given me so much hope. You all are going to continue to support the city’s riverfronts, whether individually or (fingers crossed) at a future 5K, music festival, group bike ride, or riverfront party. Together we’re going to figure this out and we’ll make the best of our new reality on the riverfronts.

We’ll dump the metaphorical water out of our tubas and keep marching forward.

Photo of Stephan Bontrager at the Point State Park fountain ceremony, 2013, by Bridgett Kay Winters for Riverlife.

Point State Park viewed from the water surrounded by boats