Feature Article - January 2021
Find a printable version here

Here's to Health!

Short- & Long-Term Health & Hygiene Strategies

By Dave Ramont


Back when closures first started happening due to the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses were in uncharted waters, adjusting on-the-fly as they figured out ways to serve their customers and stay afloat. And those in the recreation and wellness industries were in the same boat. Now, even with coronavirus numbers spiking again and new restrictions taking place, people remain anxious to participate in recreation and fitness programs. So what are some strategies that facilities have implemented when it comes to keeping their patrons safe, and what are some physical and operational adjustments that may become permanent?

Reconfiguring for Health

Barker Rinker Seacat (BRS) is an architecture firm with offices in Colorado and Texas, and their clients include community recreation centers, senior centers, municipal buildings and schools. Craig Bouck is a principal and strategy partner at BRS, and Mick Massey is a senior associate and the Texas regional director. They reflected back on the initial quarantine last year, and how badly people were craving recreation. "What we learned from that is parks and rec services are essential to our communities, because they were actually overwhelmed with people going out and using parks and trails after restrictions were lifted," said Massey, a former parks and rec director. "This is also an opportunity to educate leaders in how important funding parks and rec can be, when it comes down to making a difference in communities."

Bouck and Massey have given presentations advising recreation professionals on how to adapt their centers to a post-COVID-19 era, and how to prepare and design for a safer and healthier future. They believe that the three resources that will likely have the most impact include building size, infrastructure and building layout.

With building size, it's easy to say that facilities need to be larger to allow for more social distancing, but Bouck knows that this is neither likely nor feasible. "So we take the resources we have and the strategy is to reallocate them."

Sometimes, due to budgets, the parts of a building that aren't programmable—entryways, lobbies, lounges, circulation spaces—have been diminished. But now, having these areas more crowded is perceived as unsafe, so perhaps they need to be reimagined. "We can really be strategic and not put all of our lobby space in the front of the building, but spread it out," said Bouck. "Not adding more square footage but reallocating it; putting that little gathering space in front of each of the rooms that are going to have groups so people can arrive and depart safely."

Adding more entrances and exits is another strategy that Bouck suggests, especially for seniors or high-risk groups. "And if we can create an opportunity where there's one way in and one way out, people are going to feel safer."

Also, people aren't going to be comfortable being close to others in locker rooms or restrooms, so reallocating space in the building might be beneficial. "The building might ultimately be the same size it always was, but some of these interstitial spaces, these support spaces, might get more priority."

Air quality is another consideration that's getting more scrutiny. "People are really worried about airborne pathogens like COVID, and the question is: Can we do more to get fresh air in these spaces and get the nasty air out?" asked Bouck.

Massey described speaking with HVAC experts, and while they've learned that increasing ventilation in older buildings will be a challenge, it's a worthwhile investment. "Compartmentalizing your building makes sense, but also compartmentalizing large spaces," said Massey, comparing this strategy to zones in airports, where they move out large columns of air to ensure safety. "We have to adapt that technology more to places like rec centers in the future."

Features like air ionizers and HEPA filters, which remove dust, pollen, mold, bacteria and other airborne pollutants, are also possible strategies. "COVID likes it a little dry, while other pathogens like molds like it wet", said Massey. "The most optimum safe zone is aiming at 50% humidity."

UV lights have been used for years to kill pathogens in water at aquatic facilities, and now this technology has been moving to non-aquatic venues as well. But Massey and Bouck stress that while these can be beneficial, they can also be dangerous to people and the built environment, so consulting with engineers and technicians is crucial. Some strategies for UV lights include incorporating them in HVAC units, employing them at the top of rooms or when the building is closed, and even distributing them with drones, particularly in restrooms, food handling areas, etc. "This is a system-wide approach to making these buildings safer," said Massey.