In a normal year, the Memorial Day weekend would signal the unofficial beginning of summer. People might gather for picnics and barbecues or at ceremonies to remember fallen servicemen and women. Meanwhile, the area’s swimming pools would open for children and families eager to get a preview of the post-scholastic season.
But not this year.
Pools in Orange County—public and private—are closed, at least for the time being as part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s phased reopening of Virginia businesses and activities.
And while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread through water, pools, by nature, are communal activities. Even though the CDC notes that proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) should inactivate the virus in the water, maintaining social distancing protocols as well as proper cleaning of shared and common spaces can create challenges to pool operations.
In a letter to members (stockholders), Orange Country Town Pool President Spike Richards told them the pool—as a non-essential business—will remain shuttered until at least June 10, per the governor’s orders.
“The pool board of directors has been meeting (through Zoom) to keep up with the guidelines and how this affects the pool. As we understand it, the pool will be able to open on June 11 and that is what we plan to do. If the stay is lifted at an earlier date, we will certainly bump up the opening,” he wrote.
While the Lake of the Woods Association developed a strategy to reopen some of its amenities two weeks ago based upon the governor’s phase one orders, the property’s two pools are scheduled to be available to residents by June 11, so long as the statewide phase two reopening order is enacted.
At its virtual meeting last Monday evening, the Gordonsville Town Council discussed reopening the only public pool in the county.
And while Orange and Lake of the Woods eye a mid-June date, Gordonsville officials took the longer view.
Gordonsville Town Manager Debbie Kendall said she’d spoken with other towns and organizations that operate pools and their plans ranged from not opening at all, waiting until mid-June and the governor’s phase two re-opening, or possibly opening later in the summer.
Gordonsville Mayor Bob Coiner said it comes down to two major components—fiscal and health. “And fiscal is a distant second,” he said.
He suggested closing the pool was a loss all the way around—for the town and the citizens the pool serves. In researching the topic, he found public and private pools approaching the issue with different strategies.
“Private pools can have more control over their members and funding,” he said. “They’ll still have the steady revenue of membership,” and can more readily limit who uses the pool and when.
As for the nature of the “open to all” public pool, Coiner said, “I’m not going to let one person endanger everyone else.”
Richards said Country Town Pool has been working on details related to daily operation. “One example is the procedure for even more stringent sanitization methods at the pool, especially in the bathrooms and snack shack area,” he said. “The safety of everyone at the pool is our top priority.”
At Lake of the Woods, general manager Phil Rodenberger noted the community’s two pools would be open with limited capacity and with social distancing required on deck and in the pool. There would be no pool parties and no private events. Pool staff would remove high-touch items, such as toys and floats and members would be requested to limit their stay to two hours or less. There also would be “increased sanitization,” as well as reconfigured deck areas and stringent access control, he reported. Doors would be propped open to limit touching and indoor showers would be off-limits. Pool staff would disinfect bathrooms and pool furniture at each guard change.
“The unknown at this time is capacity limit,” he added. “If it is 50 pool patrons, LOWA will need to limit patron time to, say, two hours, to allow more use. If it is 50%, we are able to accommodate approximately 125 per pool and perhaps have less pressure to limit patron pool time to two hours.”
“We would be in the same situation with staggering times if the number is 50 people,” Richards added. “At 50%, we would be able to handle about 125 members. I have been in contact with a few area pools and what we are doing seems to be in line with most other private pool facilities.”
In Gordonsville, Coiner suggested limiting attendance would help protect pool patrons, but said a mechanism doesn’t exist currently to determine who could come when and stay for how long. He likened the situation to when gasoline was rationed in the 1970s and families could take their turns at the pump based on the first letter of their last names.
He also expressed concern for the challenge of cleaning and disinfecting large-scale common areas like bathrooms and locker rooms, not to mention pool decks and ladders.
Coiner suggested enforcing proper social distancing in a large or playful pool crowd would be difficult, at best. “How do you keep children who haven’t seen each other in months apart?” he asked. “We could have it only for adults, but that’s a tease. I don’t want kids outside the pool with their noses pressed against the fence.”
Council member Ron Brooks agreed and said day care facilities struggle with keeping young children apart in playful settings. “You can’t do it,” he noted.
And, there’s a financial element to consider as well. In order to protect patrons, the town would need to limit their attendance. Lower attendance translates to lower revenue for a town service already identified as a loss leader.
At Country Town Pool, Richards said members are asked to pay dues on time and the club will make financial adjustments once it has a better understanding of the impact on the operation.
“Those details include when we open, costs associated with the daily maintenance of the pool leading up to opening and membership numbers,” he said. That could lead to prorated dues adjusted for a late opening or a partial credit on the coming year’s dues, he said.
“At this time, we do not have a complete picture of the total financial impact of the shutdown on the pool,” he said. “We are carefully monitoring the situation and certainly it will have a negative impact on us.”
Rodenberg said LOWA would save “a few thousand a week” in staffing costs while pools are closed, but will continue to pay the pool management company to keep the community’s two pools ready for use.
In Gordonsville, the pool is filled, treated and ready to open. Kendall said it will be maintained throughout the summer with the hopes of opening, but all council members shared concerns about the fiscal impacts of a town service that costs and loses money, particularly in a time when it expects a sharp drop in sales and meals taxes and other COVID-19 affected revenue.
“We need to keep in mind we’re trying to cut costs and we know the pool never makes money,” vice-mayor Emily Winkey said. “We’re trying to help our citizens and our merchants and there are some things that we may not be able to do this year. The pool may be one of those things, just because of the chemicals, the upkeep and salaries.”
“I agree,” council member Jim Bradley said. “We lose $10,000 or more at the pool. If you just open it for six people, you’re losing a lot of money and I think it’ll be a breeding ground for this virus.”
Coiner, for his part, wasn’t ready to give up hope.
“I’d like to make a decision at the end of June, beginning of July when we know more,” he said. “I don’t want to say no and cancel the pool for the season. I hate to give up on the idea for the children. I hope we can get it open, but I’m not in a hurry.”
Council member Liz Samra suggested the council evaluate the topic at its June 15 meeting when it might have a better handle on what other pools have experienced following their anticipated June 11 re-openings.
“I share your fiscal concerns,” she said, “but we’re really not ready to make a decision yet. We can keep it in swim-ready mode until the June meeting.
“I’d rather the children be disappointed than anyone get sick,” she added.
“It does feel strange not to jump in the pool Memorial Day weekend,” Rodenberg said. “In the past, it seems like one of the two LOWA pools has experienced an issue like a bad pump or filter, but the other has been open. Like any large community, there are a range of opinions. Some are anxious for us to open, and a few don’t want us to open at all. I think a lot of members here are ready to get outside, and the pool is seen as a safe option. There will be a group of early accepters, and there will be a group of cautious people. But for the most part, we think people are ready to get out in this outdoor facility.”
Richards shared similar sentiments.
“Most of the feedback we have gotten from members has been positive,” he said. “They are just hopeful that the pool will be available this summer. I think that when the pool opens, most people will come back. There will still be some people who are concerned about personal health and safety issues that may choose to stay away, but I believe people are ready for some return to normalcy and that there will be a good turnout.”