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.'"
Getting Ready to Open
As waterparks consider the pros and cons of reopening and the policies needed to do so safely, they also must deal with policies that can be quite different across areas that may be experiencing similar outbreaks.
"H2O waterpark in Dallas opened up and then said we're not going to continue on after June 30th because it's a regional hotspot and the city didn't think it was safe to proceed," said George Deinies, studio director of feasibility studies for the aquatics design and engineering firm Counsilman-Hunsaker. "Just 15 miles down the road, you have Six Flags Hurricane Harbor that's still open … So it's really just hit or miss, and a lot of it just depends upon the philosophy of city leadership and the waterpark leadership to say, 'Can we do this safely?' And if the answer is yes, then they're going to do it."
In a webinar he presented to members of the World Waterpark Association on safely reopening aquatic facilities for the season, Deines suggested numerous practices operators should look at incorporating, including but not limited to:
>> Changing deck layouts to ensure that people can stay at least six feet from people they don't live with.
>> Introducing one-way entrances and exits in spray pad areas.
>> Finding ways to eliminate bottlenecks in areas like the park entry, entrances and exits to lazy rivers, and tops of waterslides.
>> Keeping widths of walkways more than 6 feet and possibly 10 to 12 feet to allow people to pass one another while maintaining social distancing.
>> Considering a queue line and dispatch person for lazy rivers, and sanitizing tubes in between uses.
>> Masks for staff and plexiglass shields where it makes sense.
>> Eliminating shared objects for staff, from sunscreen pumps to water coolers to multiple lifeguards using the same chair or safety equipment in the same day.
>> Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at least once daily.
>> Using CDC-approved disinfectants as instructed.
Communication Is Key
To successfully welcome guests, it is also helpful to communicate to visitors what the new policies will be. At Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay in Louisville, Ky., this includes online information detailing policies regarding face coverings, temperature checks, physical distancing and other measures, as well as publication of the park's full 12-page "COVID-19 Preparedness Plan." These are regularly updated as policies change.
"I've never been a fan of that adjective nimble, but we've had to change stuff every day," said Gaylee Gillim, general counsel for and one of the owners of Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay. "The governor issues executive orders and we get feedback from guests and team members and industry association republish guidelines and considerations for safety and risk management."
Gillim sees the ongoing communication as not only important for safety, but also for guest satisfaction. "There's nothing that makes people more aggravated than not finding out something until they get to the park," Gillim said.
Island H20 Live!, a waterpark in Kissimmee, Fla., likewise publishes its policies online. General Manager Jim Kunau noted that in-park signage and communication is also important, and something that is constantly evolving.
For instance, after several guests complained about having to wait in line for a temperature check and verbal screening before entering the park, the park put up several new signs, starting in the parking lot and ending at the security checkpoint, that people should expect to wait in line.
New signage throughout the park reminds people about everything from social distancing to handwashing. "I think on last count, including the laminated items, that we have put up over 250 new signs in the park because you have to tell people," Kunau said.
At Hurricane Bay, Gillim noted the addition of 100 hand sanitizer stations, disabling of the water fountains and modification of self-serve drink stations so people cannot touch the buttons. At the same time, some of the communication points out the need for guests to be responsible, as well. "I think more of the awareness is on the guest side and to maybe understand how important it is to wash your hands all the time," Gillim said.
One of the biggest surprises for Kunau has been the different concepts of social distancing that people have, and the need to constantly remind guests about it. "Frankly, you need to remind people on a regular basis," Kunau said. "So every 20 minutes or so, we have an announcement that comes on that reminds people to social distance and reminds people that we need your help. We can't do this on our own. You've got to help us. This is a partnership between our guests and park operations to be able to do this safely and effectively."
Because lifeguards need to focus on watching the water, Island H2O Live! relies on employees at the supervisor and manager level to converse with guests and act as ambassadors to enforce rules around social distancing and about wearing a mask in the park except for when on the slides or in the water.
At Hurricane Bay, Gillim noted that mask wearing is required in the pinch point of the park entrance, and in retail and indoor restaurant spaces, but that guests are not required to wear masks elsewhere in the park as long as they are able to keep a six-foot distance from others not in their party.
To enforce the rules, Hurricane Bay has hired social distancing ambassadors who are equipped with portable public address systems and are particularly focused on the wave pool, the waterpark's biggest attraction in terms of size.
"We do our absolute best to follow up with people. And if they are not following that encouragement, we then have our public safety officers follow up," Gillim said. "And we haven't had too much trouble with that because people want to stay in the park and enjoy themselves."
Operational Modifications for a COVID-19 World
One way some waterparks are helping encourage social distancing is by reducing lines wherever and however possible. Deines is seeing some waterparks limit entry lines by opting for opening for two sessions per day at limited capacity, and others staggering entries using reserved entry times. He is seeing others shift their food service by taking food out to tables to keep crowds of people waiting for food from gathering.
At Island H2O Live!, Kunau's team has placed four-inch blue dots throughout the facility on the stairs leading up to rides and in other areas to promote social distancing. "Start from the top of the ride platforms and work your way backwards," Kunau said. "It sounds simple until you have to go and place $4,000 worth of dots. Because you're spending thousands of dollars doing it, you want to do it right."
The waterpark has also kept admission at 50% of capacity even after Florida's phased reopening plan would've allowed for additional customers. "As a park, we want to maintain as much social distancing as we can get," Kunau said. "If we run much past our 50% capacity, we have bigger challenges with social distancing."
He also made the choice to shut down capsule slides. "That just to me is one of those places where I can't tell you that there's enough airflow between guests on a capsule to be able to go, 'this is safe' … until we get a lot further down the road, those rides are going to remain closed," Kunau said.
At Hurricane Bay, a similar choice was made to temporarily close its water coaster, The Deluge. Because it fits multiple people on the raft and has a minimum and maximum weight limit, the ride makes the process of maintaining social distancing and grouping people from different households together difficult.
At Island H2O Live!, other changes have included closing off the second set of stairs going up to rides to make social distancing easier and not allowing customers to use tubes in the lazy river or wave pool for the time being. "It sounds strange for a lazy river, but when the current carries you, how do you social distance?" Kunau said.
Reducing the use of rafts and tubes also helps minimize the need for constant sanitizing of items before they can be used again. And the world of sanitizers itself can become a complicated and costly undertaking, with the fastest sanitizers typically being the most expensive.
"For tubes and rides and mats we currently use one-minute sanitizer," Kunau said. "For lawn chairs, we use a 10-minute sanitizer because it tends to be at least that long between guests given the reduced capacity. In the bathrooms, it's a more potent sanitizer."
Gillim also recommends that operators look to guidance from product manufacturers to ensure that the sanitation products they use are both effective and suitable to use on slides and other products without degrading them.
Industry organizations such as the World Waterpark Association (WWA) and IAAPA offer webinars and other resources that help waterparks navigate a post-COVID world. Going to other waterparks to learn about and observe their best practices is another great way to continually improve your operations.
Gillim additionally noted that having a safety committee is something that can be particularly helpful, and a way to address real operational issues that are currently occurring in the park. As general counsel for Kentucky Kingdom and Hurricane Bay, she chairs that committee, which meets weekly during the season and less frequently during the offseason.
"That is our forum to brainstorm with every safety concern and issue from any department," Gillim said. "I guide the committee through the legal aspects but everybody on the committee who comes from operations brings his or her own issues that I might not be aware of and we talk about them. So if there's a park out there that doesn't have a safety committee, I would definitely recommend that you have one because you need to understand what's going on and what near misses might be out there or what best practices you're not aware of."
Over the short term, operators are dealing with ongoing uncertainty and customer trepidation through reduced capacities and offering customers season passes that go through next season.
But while experts like Matzke and Kunau expect that COVID-19 will likely bring a greater focus on ensuring the best possible air and water quality moving forward, many operators don't necessarily expect to see a broader shift in how waterparks are designed in the future.
"I hope, just like the Spanish Flu, that this is a once-a-century event, and you and I are not going to be around to re-implement our COVID procedures," Gillim said.
What operators are seeing, and what might be a lasting trend, is a preference for cabanas where guests can have their own space, their own shade and the food delivered to them. "If anything, this could put a premium on reservable shaded cabanas, reservable chairs and tables that are not in the heart of the waterpark — they're kind of on the outskirts so people are not on a major thoroughfare," Deines said. "When they're eating or taking in some sun or shade, they're on the back side of the park in their private cabana."
Beyond that, the only thing certain for the waterpark industry in the coming months and years is uncertainty. At the same time, experts like Deines remain bullish on the industry's long-term outlook. "The demand, I think, for both indoor and outdoor aquatics will remain strong just because it's such a universal multigenerational activity," Deines said. RM
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