The Road to Reopening

Getting Back to Business, Safely

As states have rolled out their reopening plans following shutdowns, quarantines and restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many industries and facilities are grappling with how to safely get back to business, understanding it won't be business as usual. How do they protect patrons and staff from illness and protect themselves from liability? We checked in with some contributors to get their take on how various facilities are handling this, taking into consideration that as of this writing, virus numbers had risen sharply in some areas, affecting some state and local guidelines.

When times get tough, YMCAs are often on the front lines. "While our gyms may have closed, many Ys have been providing vital services to communities throughout this crisis," said Emily Waldren, senior public relations manager for YMCA of the USA. "More than 1,000 YMCA sites across the country have been providing healthy meals to children, families and individuals who are food insecure. In Boston alone, they're serving over 10,000 meals a day!"

Ys have also been filling a critical need by providing child care to essential workers throughout the COVID crisis, according to Waldren. "Around 1,100 Ys have provided childcare for over 40,000 children since this began. Ys have created housing for those experiencing homelessness, hosted blood drives and provided outreach to seniors in their communities who are most vulnerable during a time of isolation."

And now, as Ys work to reopen their facilities, YMCA of the USA is providing them with guidance and tools to support them doing so safely, effectively and responsibly. Ultimately, based on the guidance of state and local officials and health authorities, each Y will decide how to reopen their own facilities, with YMCA of the USA monitoring the ever-evolving situation and adjusting their support and resources as needed.

"We're helping Ys address all aspects of reopening facilities, including operations, financial modeling, staffing, cleaning and sanitation, accessing stimulus funding as well as membership, programming and fundraising considerations," said Waldren, explaining that the reopening process may vary from location to location. "We've seen Ys implement standard temperature checks for members, contactless check-in, stringent cleaning guidelines, limiting class sizes, moving classes outside and physically distancing their equipment. Generally, we've seen Ys opening in phases similar to local and state governments."

As local park and recreation professionals are developing plans for reopening spaces, facilities and programs impacted by COVID-19, the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) has taken steps to support these professionals, which include: deploying a national communication plan; working with subject matter experts to develop resources and guidance; monitoring changes in policy, practice and operations; creating online learning opportunities to guide in recovery efforts; facilitating dialogue and networking among professionals; and advocating for funding to support investments and recovery for park and rec systems. NRPA stresses that agencies should adhere to federal, state and local guidance, as well as the CDC's personal protective guidance.

Playgrounds are an important part of park systems, especially in areas where kids might not have the luxury of backyards or safe streets for play. Some groups, like the nonprofit International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA) and their partner Voice of Play, have gathered suggestions and resources for play professionals and parents as playgrounds look to safely reopen. KABOOM! is another nonprofit working to achieve play space equity, and earlier this summer convened a Playground Reopening Taskforce, comprised of experts in public health, community development, parks and recreation and public facilities. The taskforce developed an actionable resource for playground owners and managers as they work to reopen, once it's deemed safe by local health authorities.

The taskforce outlined three steps for ensuring a safe reopening process, with the first being to Prioritize Equity. "Racial disparities in the health and economic impacts of the pandemic—coupled with preexisting disparities in access to recreational infrastructure and broader community disinvestment—reinforce the need for responses rooted in equity," said Nabeeha Kazi Hutchins, vice president of programs at KABOOM! and chair of the Playground Reopening Taskforce. She urged that communities hardest hit by the pandemic, and those with the fewest resources, should be given priority when it comes to receiving resources to safely reopen.

The other steps compiled by the taskforce cover planning for and enabling safe playground reopening, and recommendations include: posting signage with safety guidelines; training staff and volunteers to support safe and healthy behaviors; providing handwashing and sanitizing stations if possible; making sure park and play equipment is clean; ensuring the playground is compliant with safety standards; keeping kids home if they don't feel well; and wearing cloth face coverings or masks (except children under 2). And they stress that it's important to stay informed with information provided by local health officials or by visiting the CDC website.

Hutchins said that it's also important to enforce specific limits on usage. "The guidance recommends reducing playground capacity by two-thirds to help ensure proper social distancing of six feet. Take the total square footage of the playground footprint and divide by 113 square feet per user to reach a user number that allows each person to have a 6-foot radius around them." This means that a 2,500-square-foot playground would accommodate a maximum of 22 users.

As temperatures in many parts of the country have been above average this summer, many kids and adults have been anxious to jump into their local swimming pool. And while some communities decided to keep aquatic facilities closed for the season, many others have gradually reopened. Counsilman-Hunsaker, a firm offering design and operations services within the aquatics industry, has been working alongside other groups, including the American Red Cross, Council for the Model Aquatic Health Code, National Drowning Prevention Association, Pool and Hot Tub Alliance and USA Swimming, to address issues relating to COVID-19, and they have many related resources posted on their website.

Kevin Post, principal at Counsilman-Hunsaker, said that most facilities that have reopened are adhering to a reduced-capacity strategy, utilizing an online reservation system. "Fifty percent capacity seems to be the most we've seen allowed; some have less—10 or 15%. But locker rooms and even foodservice are things not being offered at all. You come in your swimsuit, get in the pool, do your activity and then go home."

Post compares pool reopenings to opening up your facility for the first time. "You have to kind of assume you don't know anything because it's not going to be the same." In addition to retraining staff, he said they've been recommending patron training as well—providing an orientation with guests when they arrive, explaining the new rules.

Some pools require patrons and lifeguards to wear masks in dry areas, but obviously this is not feasible in the water. Therefore, social distancing is critical. Post said that lazy rivers, wave pools and other attractions are very risky only if they're crowded, so reducing numbers is key. "Activities like waterslides and diving boards are actually pretty safe. As long as you're getting that separation in line, that space, you can offer these activities."

Post stresses that while dealing with these new concerns, pool operators shouldn't neglect normal practices. "We still have giardia, E coli, cryptosporidium, chloramines—don't change the things you used to be doing to combat that." He also pointed out that some products that are recommended for killing COVID are ammonia-based, and when they interact with chlorine they can affect air quality and cause chloramines.

Earlier this year we profiled the Midco Aquatic Center in Sioux Falls, S.D. We checked back in recently to see how they're handling their reopening, which had just entered phase 2, and spoke with Jean Pearson, recreation program coordinator of aquatics for the city of Sioux Falls. She said that they're still taking reservations for their rec pool—with a capacity of 40 patrons—and in their lap pool, reservations aren't required now but will be honored. Walk-ins at the rec pool are welcome if space allows.

Locker rooms aren't open (though restrooms are available), and concessions and drinking fountains are unavailable, though they do have a water bottle filler. Temperature checks are done on employees, and guests must sign a waiver. "We encourage social distancing in all pool areas and have social distancing monitors on each pool deck to assist," said Pearson. "Lifeguards are guarding, so the monitors handle those cases. Staff are required to wear masks at the front desk as are the monitors."

Diving boards are available at Midco, with a limit of four users on each at a given time. The body slide, interactive play feature and other amenities are available, as is the outdoor splash pad. All features are sanitized after each 90-minute reservation.

"We've had to reconfigure our front desk and control all traffic flow inside the facility as well as exiting," Pearson said. "Patrons aren't able to backtrack through the facility and each pool area has a separate entrance and exit. We've included a variety of new signage to help direct patrons. Additionally, I recorded a welcome-back video, which has been posted on our Facebook page, Instagram page and website to assist users with what to expect when they come to the facility."

Pearson said they're constantly watching and evaluating what's happening with the virus in their area, and relates that patrons have been understanding about having no locker rooms, and seem to feel safe with the number of people allowed in the rec pool. Adults have been mindful to social distance while walking in the current channel and feel the deck isn't too crowded.

Integrated design firm CannonDesign offers links to COVID-related information on their website. And now, as collegiate rec centers are reopening, Colleen McKenna, director of the sports, recreation and wellness practice at CannonDesign, says that it will be a different experience. "Many institutions will require students to reserve time to work out online or through an app. So you arrive, check in, use a treadmill for 45 minutes and then there's 15 minutes for the equipment to be cleaned before the next student reservation," she said, explaining that there won't be time for students to linger and socialize, in an effort to keep visitor numbers predictable.

With regard to group fitness, McKenna said you'll likely see reduced capacity, to allow for an average of 100-square-feet per participant to meet social distance guidelines. "Swimming will probably take place with one person per lane via online reservations. With basketball you'll be able to shoot baskets with your own ball by yourself. Access to support spaces such as locker rooms and equipment checkout will be limited."

College athletics will certainly be a different experience, according to McKenna, and football season is fast approaching. "We're hearing outdoor stadiums might be able to open at about 25% capacity. That's with staggered entry and exit times, limited movement in the stadium bowl and concourse, and all concessions orders being placed online to avoid long lines. Fan seating will likely be clustered in groups of two to six based on group ticket sales, and stadiums will only allow fans in every other row." She said operators will need to evaluate the financial impact of opening a stadium at partial occupancy.

Troy Sherrard, partner and practice leader in sports and recreation design at architecture firm Moody Nolan, believes that organizing circulation at large events will help, but knows it's still unpredictable. "I can do geometric spacing, I can do design layouts, but I can't say how people are going to behave, especially in stadium or arena situations where fans get excited. It's like asking your kids to walk in a straight line."

And while Sherrard described how rec facilities have evolved over the years, with a wider perspective of what wellness is and a bigger focus on the social aspect, he feels a change is in the air. "I've been designing for over 30 years—community rec, collegiate rec, health & wellness facilities—and this is the first big impact item that could actually change how we fundamentally design these facilities."

One area that Sherrard said may see more scrutiny is locker rooms and restrooms. "Oftentimes, for pure efficiency, we'll do code minimum number of fixtures and sinks, where I believe now we'll need more sinks, which will add more square footage." And while traffic flow is already a big consideration, it may become even more relevant. "Limit all touch points, so you walk in and circulate through in a manner that you touch less, you cross paths with less people."

From an operational standpoint, Sherrard explained that everyone will likely have a higher frequency of cleaning, so interior finish materials will need strong durability. "We already pay attention to materials for sustainable properties and long-term use, but now it's going to be how well they clean, how easily they wipe down."

Graham Melstrand is vice president of engagement with the nonprofit American Council on Exercise (ACE), and he said that many exercise professionals and their clients are understandably nervous about returning to fitness facilities. Therefore, to mitigate the risks and earn the confidence of consumers, it's critical to follow recommendations and guidelines for fitness facilities that have been offered by health organizations like the CDC and WHO, as well as following state and local mandates.

Fitness facilities and exercise professionals should have a detailed plan in place, and Melstrand offers some considerations, including: the capacity of the location where services will be delivered; how social distancing will be maintained; what equipment will be available; how equipment and facilities will be sanitized and maintained; what programs and services will be offered and if they require modification; what PPE will be required for staff (and possibly participants); will health screenings be required for the professional and client; how will expectations be communicated to, and enforced, with participants.

Some group exercise programs are available with some modifications, according to Melstrand, with some offering programs outdoors. "Most facilities have marked the capacity for group exercise rooms to meet the six-foot guidance and are providing visual cues to assist instructors and participants to maintain appropriate separation. Equipment is no longer being shared and in some group exercise formats participants are required to use their own personal equipment."

Other logistical challenges include ingress and egress from the classroom space and how much time will be required to prepare the room before and sanitize the room afterward. And Melstrand pointed out the challenges for instructors wearing PPE while conducting group exercise sessions, as it can be challenging to create the energy that makes these programs compelling.

According to Melstrand, consumer attitudes to returning to fitness facilities run the gamut from those who returned to their gym or studio immediately upon reopening to those who won't feel comfortable until there's a viable vaccine or treatment. But perhaps facilities of all types can take a little something from Melstrand's final thoughts: "Based on our conversations with professionals and facilities, the ones that have experienced robust participation and utilization following reopening are the ones with detailed reopening strategies, attention to detail, effective communication with members regarding the 'new' experience and engaged staff that are committed to implementing the new policies and delivering a safe member experience." RM