A Dip in the Public Pool This Summer? Local Leaders Weigh What’s Possible

An empty municipal swimming pool is seen at Jordan Park in Allentown, Pa., Friday, May 29, 2020.

An empty municipal swimming pool is seen at Jordan Park in Allentown, Pa., Friday, May 29, 2020. AP Photo/Matt Rourke


Connecting state and local government leaders

Some states are giving the go-ahead for municipalities to open pools, but that doesn’t mean local governments will have the staff or financial resources to do so.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf will allow public swimming pools to open this summer once counties reach certain benchmarks to decrease spread of the coronavirus.

But despite the go-ahead, some municipal pools have already thrown in the towel.

Across the country, local governments are trying to decide whether they have the staffing and resources at public pools to enforce social distancing and other measures required as part of their reopening plans.

Others may not have the money to reopen at full capacity this year as coronavirus-related business closures mean localities of all sizes are looking at reduced budgets.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, local leaders in May made the decision that the city would not open its two public pools at all this summer. Mayor Eric Papenfuse said at the time that it was unclear when or if Dauphin County, where his city is located, would meet the criteria to reopen.

“There is a lot of staffing and preparation that goes into opening pools,” Papenfuse said at a press conference last month. “So, at this point, and in the interest of public safety, we made the decision to say the pools would not be open.”

Although the county’s reopening status has since been upgraded from red to yellow, city officials said they simply do not have the resources.

To reopen, Wolf requested that pools follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which include modifying venue layouts to encourage social distancing, regularly disinfecting lounges, chairs and other poolside furniture, and staggering or rotating shifts for staff members and life guards.

There is no evidence that Covid-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools or hot tubs, according to the CDC. But because of the potential for close contact at pool facilities, the CDC recommends aquatic facilities take some precautions to prevent community spread.

For some public pool facilities, the guidance may be too onerous to follow, given their own limited staff and funding.

Like Harrisburg, the city of Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania said it will also remain closed this summer and cited the difficulty of enforcing health-related precautions.

“This decision was not made lightly,” the Borough of Mechanicsburg announced on its website. “While it is true chlorine does kill this virus, the other surfaces, the locker rooms, railings and slides would have to be sanitized on a continuing basis, this would require extra staff and be extremely disruptive to the patrons.”

But some cities have found the resources to move ahead and are working out plans that they hope will result in safe reopenings in the coming weeks.

In San Antonio, Texas, Parks and Recreation Department Director Homer Garcia had expected to keep all of the city’s 24 public pools closed this summer after cuts were made to address the city’s $80 million budget shortfall brought on by the coronavirus. But last week the San Antonio City Council adopted a modified budget, which instead will provide $322,000 for the department to open 11 outdoor pools on an “abridged schedule,” Garcia said.

The pools are expected to open July 3 and remain in operation every day from 1 to 8 p.m. All of the pools will be open on weekends, but will rotate days in operation on weekdays. 

The city intends to follow Governor Greg Abbott’s order, which currently limits capacity at pools at 50%, but by the time the pools open, Garcia said those restrictions could be further relaxed.  

Because parks have been a refuge for residents amid the coronavirus outbreak, Garcia said he believes there is a similar expectation from the community to open pools this summer.

He said the parks department is continuing to think through other possible modifications, such as marking pool decks so visitors can clearly stay six feet from one another, or how to stagger visitors’ entrance and exit from shower facilities.

“We have the staff in place because we only have 11 pools, so we can focus on where the resources are needed,” Garcia said. “I think we can provide more focused attention and attention to detail, so people feel safe when they come to our pools.”

Texas, where almost 80,000 Covid-19 infections are reported and at least 1,800 people have died, has moved more quickly than other states to reopen its economy. At the same time, Texas this week recorded its highest number of Covid-19 hospitalizations, a data point that state officials have said they will be watching. 

But even in some of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, leaders are considering reopening pools this summer as the number of cases and hospitalizations drop.

In New Jersey, where upwards of 165,000 people were infected and more than 12,000 people have died from the virus, Gov. Phil Murphy announced this week that public and private pools can begin to reopen on June 22.  The state health department issued guidance, which includes temperature and wellness screenings on all staff, capacity limitations, and routine disinfection of pool furniture and equipment.

In New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, Mayor Bill de Blasio has also said city officials are assessing whether pools and beaches could open this summer. If hospital admissions and positive Covid-19 tests continue to drop, the city could move forward into reopening phases that would allow that to happen, he said at a press conference this week.

“If we can do that then we’re having a real conversation about beaches for sure,” he said. “If we can do that there may even be a way to come back to pools.”

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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