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Uncharted waters: Baltimore-area pools remain closed amid coronavirus uncertainty as swim season arrives

Just one year ago, scenes such as lifeguard Conor Sheehey getting a towel for Alyssa Bitzeo at Padonia Park Swim Club, would be common across Maryland during Memorial Day weekend. Now, pools are sitting idle as the state and operators mull the next steps as coronavirus looms.
Just one year ago, scenes such as lifeguard Conor Sheehey getting a towel for Alyssa Bitzeo at Padonia Park Swim Club, would be common across Maryland during Memorial Day weekend. Now, pools are sitting idle as the state and operators mull the next steps as coronavirus looms. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron)

Memorial Day weekend is usually a time to go to the pool, do cannonballs, dunk siblings, down hot dogs and dive into summer with a goose bump or two. But the pandemic has thrown cold water on the norm, shuttering community pools and swim clubs while the state mulls their fate for 2020.

“We have about a million gallons of water just waiting in our six pools here,” said Matt Musgrove, CEO of the Padonia Park Club in Cockeysville. “It’s clear water; still water.” Lakes placid, if you will.

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“It’s our 60th anniversary; we were supposed to have fireworks this weekend,” said Musgrove, whose club has close to 4,000 members. “We’re at the mercy of regulations, but we’re doing our best to be ready to open and give everyone the best summer we can.”

Municipal pools are hung up, too. At least one city, Westminster, has preemptively declared it will not operate this season. Baltimore’s city-run pools typically serve tens of thousands of residents every summer; officials there are still determining procedures for reopening pools, once the state gives its OK.

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The state’s start date has yet to be determined.

“The Maryland Department of Health is working on guidance related to opening pools ... that are consistent with the phase one [re]opening,” said Charles Gischlar, spokesperson for the agency.

“We have about a million gallons of water just waiting in our six pools here. It’s clear water; still water.”


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Other states, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas, have lifted their outdoor pool bans. Virginia pools are open for lap swimming only. Delaware community pools reopened Friday, but at 20%capacity.

Even when the state gives the OK, Maryland pools cannot open immediately. All must be inspected by city or county health departments, a process that could take several weeks, pool officials said. And when they do open, it won’t be business as usual, given the guidelines they expect from the state.

Five Oaks Swim Club in Catonsville, for instance, tentatively plans to have members reserve swim time slots online to maintain limited head counts. People will enter through one gate and leave by another. Face masks would be mandatory except in the water. Swimmers would have to clear out of the pool every few hours, for 30 minutes, to allow employees to sanitize handrails, ladders and slides. And picnic tables would be disinfected after use by each family.

“It’s definitely going to look like it never has in the past,” said Barbara Bates, manager of Five Oaks, which has 1,800 members. “I’ve been here 34 years and this is all new to us. There will be a plexiglass window at the snack bar and signs up all over. We know it’s not normal, but we’ve worked countless hours to come up with a plan — we’re still getting input — and I have a feeling that when we can open, people will be ready to get in the pool.”

On its website, the Centers for Disease Control states that “there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools."

An empty pool is pictured on the UMBC campus last month.
An empty pool is pictured on the UMBC campus last month. (Jeffrey F. Bill)

To ease public concerns, Five Oaks is maintaining chlorine levels that “are higher than called for,” said Bates. Likewise, South Carroll Swim Club, said its president, Tom Straehle.

“We’re doing all we can to make the pools as safe as possible when we open, we hope, by the end of June," Straehle said. South Carroll has two 25-meter pools and a membership of 500 families, many of whom — despite the cool weather — are itching “to get in the water to have something to do.”

Will there be enough lifeguards, many of whose recertifications are on hold because of COVID-19?

“A lot of them hadn’t completed all of their [annual or biennial] training when things shut down in March,” Straehle said. “Lifesaving and first aid certification is all close contact training, so all of that must be restarted before we have enough guards to open the pools.”

Of its normal 50 lifeguards, Padonia Park has hired 35. Anticipating state restrictions, the club removed half of its 500 lounge chairs on pool decks and placed the others in groups of two, all 6 feet apart. There’s a new secure entrance to ensure that arrivals are members; guests are restricted, based on the required capacities.

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“Our average member visits less than 10 times a year,” Musgrove said, “but we anticipate a higher interest this summer with more people staying home.”

When in the pool, he said, expectations are that “families can be together but must distance themselves from others. People need to be mindful of who’s around them.”

As for wearing masks on the pool decks, Musgrove said wryly, “it may lead to some interesting tan lines this summer.”

Baltimore City is also drafting plans to "provide guidance on our summer activities and amenities. This includes pools,” said Whitney Clemmons Brown, spokesperson for the city’s Recreation and Parks Department. “We understand the vital role that our agency plays in the Baltimore summer experience and want to find a way to maintain quality, but by doing so safely.”

Given the uncertainties surrounding the pool season, at least one facility has grudgingly thrown in the towel. On Monday, the Westminster Municipal Pool chose to close for the summer.

“There were too many unknowns,” said Heather Mullendore, the town’s assistant director of recreation and parks. "When the state says we can open, it would still be late June, or even July, before we could do so. Where would we find staff, many of whom may have found another job?

"We haven’t hired lifeguards. Sanitizing locker and restrooms are a challenge. What about physical distancing in the pool? How do you keep kids from not wanting to play together? As for wearing masks in the pool area, I can’t see how that would be enjoyable.

“It’s a ripple effect, so we decided to close and make pool repairs this year.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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