Feature Article - August 2020
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The Road to Reopening

Getting Back to Business, Safely

By Dave Ramont


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.