Supplement Feature - September 2020
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Waterpark Safety & Risk Management

Waterparks Aim to Stay Safely Afloat

By Chris Gelbach

As waterparks evolve their safety and risk management practices in response to the coronavirus pandemic, operators are faced with making difficult choices. The need for social distancing and changing local and state regulations relating to everything from dining capacities to mask requirements are requiring waterparks to rethink their operations—and in some cases to shut down for the season in hopes of at least a partial return to normalcy over the next year.

The Water Is Fine

As recent CDC guidance states, there's no evidence that COVID-19 can spread through pool water, and proper disinfection from chlorine should inactivate the virus—though chlorinated water alone should not be used as a surface disinfectant.

"So conceptually the safest place you could be is in the pool as opposed to sharing the other facilities—the entrance, the bathrooms, the deck furniture, the retail, the arcades that may be associated with the waterpark," said Daryl Matzke, market leader for aquatics for the architecture and engineering firm Ramaker & Associates.

That being said, some experts expect waterparks to continue to up their water-quality game in response to the pandemic. Jim Kunau, general manager of Island H2O Live! in Kissimmee, Fla., expects to see more operators opt for additional treatment of water with UV.

"I do think there are lots of facilities that will be looking at UV as a mechanism in the future," Kunau said. He said that once, only children's areas were treated with UV. But now, "I would not design a park that didn't treat everything with UV." The treatment can contribute to disinfection against certain bacteria and viruses, though the CDC has not recommended it specifically as a safeguard against COVID-19.

"The UV system just increases the disinfection power for the water," Matzke said, "and also UV systems bust up combined chlorine so that the chlorine is free and available to disinfect as opposed to being bound up with nitrogen and ammonia."

According to Matzke, when it comes to water quality, many waterparks are already doing a lot of things right to properly address COVID-19. "On the water quality side of things, specifically for the outdoor waterparks, continue what you're doing," Matzke said. "Monitoring the water chemistry, using a chemical controller, maintaining proper pH, maintaining residual chlorine levels." For heavily used pools or indoor pools, he recommends considering a secondary disinfection system such as UV.

Something in the Air

Given that the virus is spread predominantly through respiratory droplets and possibly aerosols, air quality and social distancing are more critical considerations for keeping guests safe. As more evidence points toward the dangers of indoor environments like restaurants and bars characterized by poor ventilation and limited mask wearing, outdoor environments are increasingly being recognized as a lower-risk choice for recreational activities.

Maztke noted that even indoor waterparks had been moving in the right direction in improving air quality prior to the current crisis. "You address the air quality in two ways. One, you address the water quality. Maintain the water quality, the air quality is going to be better," Matzke said. "And that's dehumidification, that amount of outside air you're bringing in, the movement of the air so you don't have stagnant air locations, and maybe even the treatment of the air."

The use of energy recovery units in many indoor waterparks to help reduce energy loss has helped make the use of more outside air in those parks more feasible. Matzke expects the trend to grow in the wake of the pandemic, with more indoor parks also adopting features such as operable roofs and sidewall ventilation to bring more natural air in, and advances in building system controls focused on air quality.

"I think air and water quality are going to really be critical. I think public perception is going to play a big part in the success of your facility," Matzke said. "If I walk in the facility and smell bad air, or can't breathe well maybe because the humidity is high, the public is going to say, 'I'm just not comfortable here with the kids so we're going to go play somewhere else. Let's go to the lake.'"