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Austin Municipal Pool to stay closed for the summer

Austin’s City Council followed the recommendation of Austin’s Park and Rec Board on Monday evening, May 18, to not open the municipal pool for the 2020 season.

This might be rather disappointing to the public for the call to be made at this time, but would-be pool users must keep in mind that our governor’s emergency order will not yet, at this time, allow for re-opening of related public-serving facilities.

Park and Rec professionals from across Minnesota continue to communicate on a regular basis to discuss possible phased-opening plans (if/when the governor and Centers for Disease Control allow for such). During our last Zoom meeting this past Monday,  which included 154 park and rec professionals, we discussed similarities and differences in challenges within our respective facilities and hopeful activities. There doesn’t seem to be group consensus/hope that the governor will allow for opening of public-serving pools several weeks down the road, but we all realize that if he (and the CDC) do allow, activities will likely need to begin within a very limited scope, those which are very structured and also ensure proper social distancing.

Two such activities might include water fitness classes and lap swimming; anything beyond that would get really challenging, and perhaps even downright dangerous to allow. IF this were to happen, it would be very difficult to justify the labor and expense of filling the pools to then have only a select few be able to use them.

A potential second phase, detailed by a regional professional recently, allowed for up to 100 people to enter their outdoor aquatic center for 45 minutes at a time, building in 15 minutes of extensive disinfecting prior to the second group, etc. One can imagine lining up (on the ‘spots’) to be admitted at say 1 p.m., to attempt to get in as one of the first 100 or fewer (to-be-color-coded wrist-banded) participants.

The governor indicated that waterslides would not be used, as it would be too difficult to maintain the proper social distancing whilst lining up on the slide stairways, awaiting a turn down the slide, etc. Related to this, imagine disinfecting all of the touch points (railings, hand holds above slide entrance chutes, etc.), between each user. Now, think about the lifeguards, whose job it is to ensure the safety of municipal pool users: Would it be their collective responsibility to ensure that groups who were standing together were from the same household?

How about the spacing of chairs/loungers along the edge of the pool: Would it be the job of the lifeguards to ensure ongoing proper spacing of the chairs on the pool deck? What about those standing in line outside the fence, ‘patiently’ awaiting their 45-minute shift in the pool: Whose job would it be to ensure their proper social distancing? It could not reasonably be that of the lifeguards (I think I’ve made this point already). But this shouldn’t be of concern, as there is never any exhibiting of behavior reflecting nervous excitement, friendly (or not so friendly) budging, or similar (sarcasm intended).

Unfortunately, the money factor has also come into play to a greater extent. Pool operational costs have not been at the top of the reasons not to open the municipal pool, but they have been a close second, and Covid-19 has exacerbated the concern. The City Council had approved a budget for 2020 which had allowed for subsidizing (paying more than the revenue the pool brings in) to the tune of $115k for the summer pool season. This was calculated based upon a typical year of attendance (and related revenue via admits, passes, swim lesson participants, rentals, and concessions sales).

Now, one might think that the pool would be busier than ever, as there is ‘nothing else’ to do in Austin (at present). However, if pools are allowed to re-open, recreation activities such as leagues and Riverside arena would likely be running as well, as would the Rec Center. So, if the attendance/participation were to be lesser at the municipal pool (due to lines awaiting admit time, fears of Covid, etc.), subsidized operating expenses could far exceed the budgeted $115k. Would it be worth it? At this point, it’s all conjecture, because permission by the governor hasn’t been granted to open public pools.

What about a shorter pool season? It typically takes 4-5 weeks of physical prep for starting our pool season; this includes pressure washing, installing diving boards, assembling pumps, and finally filling with water then heating and chemically treating the water. So, if the governor were to state on June 15 that pools could re-open on July 1, it would take until around July 15 (possibly a few days longer) for us to prep the facility. Then, keep in mind, we were scheduled for a season end date of Aug. 14 (as school activities – both high school and college, typically begin shortly thereafter), so the noted hypothetical start date of July 15 would then allow for a yet-to-be-determined-type-of pool season of approximately four weeks, if we could still recruit the needed lifeguards.

All things considered, and in my humble opinion, your City Council made what could be described as the prudent choice to have the municipal pool remain closed for the summer 2020 season versus ‘kicking the can further down the road,’ in hopes that the Governor (and decreasing threats of COVID-19) would allow for an eventual summer pool season. The easier route for City Council might have been to wait and see. But, it’s not always about easy choices and what we want to happen. Thank you, City Council and Park and Rec Board, for making the difficult decision.