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Water Media

Anatomy of a Public Pool in a Pandemic


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Reopenings around the country have varied, but one thing is consistent: Summer crowds are not allowed.

At El Cerrito Swim Center, swimmers are allotted 45 minutes and a lane to themselves. At El Cerrito Swim Center, swimmers are allotted 45 minutes and a lane to themselves.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

By Bonnie Tsui

  • Aug. 6, 2020Updated 1:54 p.m. ET

The timeless soundtrack of a public pool in summer is largely silent this summer. No shrieking children, no splashy entrances or periodic whistle blasts and curt admonitions from lifeguards (“Walk! Don’t run!”), little of the buzzy hum of happy people chatting in and around the water.

On a recent weekday morning at El Cerrito Swim Center, a popular East Bay pool complex in Northern California that normally has more than 550 visitors a day, the air was so still that one could hear birds chirping and the shuffling of flip-flops as a small group of masked patrons tentatively filed onto the pool deck for their allotted 45-minute lap swim.

Eric Rhodes was one of those swimmers. It was the first time in four and a half months that he’d been back. Pre-pandemic, Mr. Rhodes, 70, hits the pool three times a week.

One of those sessions is usually a practice with the Berkeley Aquatic Masters team, of which he has been a member for two decades. How did it feel to get back in the water? “Slow,” he said with a sigh. “But it was really great to jump in and be aquatic again, instead of land-borne.”

The pool had reopened only two weeks earlier and accommodations for this pandemic summer were in effect. Would-be swimmers have to make reservations online. Socially distanced staff go through a health checklist with patrons in the parking lot, everyone in masks.

Lifeguards are equipped with the usual red rescue tubes, but also disinfecting pump bottles. And each lane of the 10-lane pool is designated for one swimmer at a time (two swimmers if they’re from the same household).

Patrons must make reservations online.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times Elizabeth and Alan Banks came prepared with their masks.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York TimesImageLifeguards are equipped with the usual rescue tubes, but also disinfecting pump bottles. Lifeguards are equipped with the usual rescue tubes, but also disinfecting pump bottles. Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

During the 15-minute break between swim sessions, lifeguards must now be bouncers and enforce mask wearing and social distancing rules. They act as sanitation workers as well, spraying disinfectant all over outdoor showers and high-touch surfaces like hand railings and ladders. One of the lifeguards on duty, Alejandra Robins, had a Zen-like approach to her newfound duties.

“In some ways this is nice, because it’s a lot quieter and easier to focus on my job,” said Ms. Robins, 19, who grew up in El Cerrito. She will be heading off to her freshman year at Vassar College this fall, where masks and social distancing will also be the rule.

“Like everything else right now, the pool experience is much more restricted,” she said. “But I do miss the bigger community I usually work with, that random come-and-go of patrons. To me, that’s what makes it so pool-like.”

Relaxing at a pool in a pandemic feels like a Prohibition-era metaphor. We’re all craving a certain sweet liquid escape, but most of us aren’t allowed to have it. There are laws regulating access. It’s not available everywhere, but people with connections are more likely to find a way to get it. And temperance, it turns out, is mighty hard.

The structure of pool reopenings around the country has varied by timeline and degree, but one thing is constant: summer crowds are not allowed. In Illinois, a handful of community pools reopened in mid-June at a maximum of 50 percent capacity, but all public pools within the Chicago Park District remain closed.

On July 24, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation began a phased reopening of 15 of its free public swimming pools, including the Kosciuszko Pool in Brooklyn, Wagner Pool in Manhattan and Liberty Pool in Queens; the pools can operate at 70 percent capacity.

Swimmers are required to wear a face covering for entry, to be removed only when they enter the water. Six feet of social distance is required between households.

In California, state health guidelines have allowed for pools to reopen with the approval of local authorities, but the devil is in the details. Most municipal pools run at a deficit even in non-coronavirus times, said Beth Frazer, the recreation supervisor of facilities and aquatics for the city of El Cerrito.

Her challenge has been to serve as many in the community as possible while adhering to health guidelines laid out by the city and county, as well as by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Staff go through a health checklist with patrons, lined up to swim.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times Alissander Bouziane, a lifeguard, spraying disinfectant on high-touch surfaces.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times Without summer programs to bring in revenue, the cost of admission to the pool has gone up.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

“We’re the only pool open on this side of the East Bay hills, which means we have very limited capacity and an increased population to serve,” Ms. Frazer said, noting that area pools in the surrounding cities of Richmond and Albany remain closed. She said that it’s an impossible puzzle: “Right now we have only 90 or so time slots a day — and 200 to 300 people who want to swim.” People with reservations come and line up outside according to lane assignment.

The facility normally serves a diverse population across age, race and income, with a full calendar of swimming lessons, camps, swim team and water polo practices, water aerobics, lap swim, rec swim, birthday parties and lifeguard training. Without those programs and the revenue they bring in, the cost of admission has gone up — from $7 to $10 for residents and $12 for nonresidents — much to the chagrin of those in the community who are used to more affordable fees.

“The expense is a limitation. I can’t afford to go more than once a week,” said Carol Jameson, 62, who lives in Richmond. “My swimming before the pandemic was rich in so many ways that I took for granted. But I do understand they’re doing the best they can and that all of these restrictions are necessary for our health.”

The Coronavirus Outbreak ›

Frequently Asked Questions

Updated August 6, 2020

  • Why are bars linked to outbreaks?

    • Think about a bar. Alcohol is flowing. It can be loud, but it’s definitely intimate, and you often need to lean in close to hear your friend. And strangers have way, way fewer reservations about coming up to people in a bar. That’s sort of the point of a bar. Feeling good and close to strangers. It’s no surprise, then, that bars have been linked to outbreaks in several states. Louisiana health officials have tied at least 100 coronavirus cases to bars in the Tigerland nightlife district in Baton Rouge. Minnesota has traced 328 recent cases to bars across the state. In Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections among young adults who had visited several bars in downtown Boise. Governors in California, Texas and Arizona, where coronavirus cases are soaring, have ordered hundreds of newly reopened bars to shut down. Less than two weeks after Colorado’s bars reopened at limited capacity, Gov. Jared Polis ordered them to close.
  • I have antibodies. Am I now immune?

    • As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
  • I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?

    • The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
  • What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?

  • What is school going to look like in September?

    • It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.

One of those entrusted with maintaining the health of the pool and its patrons is Anthony Wong, of Two Brothers Pool & Spa in nearby El Sobrante. Mr. Wong has been taking care of the pump room and pool at this swim center for 20 years; he comes by once a day to check and maintain the facility’s chemical levels.

“It’s a whole new world — every city is being different right now with its rules, so it’s been super-hectic,” he said. “With the swim center it’s easier, because swimmers come by appointment only and they have staff to wipe stuff down and keep things clean.”

Family swim hours provide a much more cramped experience than in summers past.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times But kids are just happy to be in the water.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

“We’re on a lighter scale with chems because daily use is cut down to about an eighth of the usual numbers,” he said, referring to chemicals.

Family swim hours, which finally started up again on July 24, are a far cry from the usual sprawling splash park and rec pool water slide experience. On a recent afternoon, two groups of up to five people each were allowed to swim on opposite sides of a divided lane. But Lisa Faria, who was among the first in line with a reservation for her husband and two daughters and herself, was happy.

“It was short, only 45 minutes, but the kids had enough time to pretend to be mermaids and have fun and practice freestyle,” Ms. Faria said. “It was great. Everything felt clean. I could smell the hand sanitizer.”

Over the last few months, her daughters — Gaby, 9, and Emma, 8 — had been keeping a close eye on the swim center, wondering when it would open. Most summers, she said, the girls attend a parade of swim camps, swim lessons and birthday parties here.

Swimming gives her family a sense of peace and lightness in what can feel like an all-too-heavy and overwhelming world these days, Ms. Faria said. “Fingers crossed that this keeps going, that it can work,” she said. “I hope we find many more days of swimming.”

Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim.”

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