Why ‘not a lot of pools are going to open’ this Memorial Day weekend in North Carolina

Swimming pools in North Carolina are allowed to reopen for Memorial Day weekend, but don’t count on finding one that’s ready to.

“Not a lot of pools are going to open in North Carolina this weekend,” said Jeff Gaeckle, whose company manages 160 community pools. “We have a lot of prep work to do.”

N.C. Governor Roy Cooper’s Phase 2 of state reopening allows for swimming pools to open. However, there are new rules and guidelines, following two months of inactivity. Swimming-pool capacities will be dropped by half, and signs must be posted, reminding people of social distancing. Staff will need to be trained in infection-control involving pool furniture, handrails, bathrooms and other high-touch areas.

Also, stay-at-home orders that have been in place the past two months slowed American Red Cross certification of lifeguards this spring.

That means most swimming pools and their staffs aren’t ready. Charlotte-area YMCA pools and pools at the Jewish Community Center won’t be open this weekend. Mecklenburg County announced Friday that their aquatic facilities wouldn’t reopen until June.

That will be a disappointment to many, with Memorial Day weekend being the traditional start of summer pool season. However, it’s unavoidable from a safety standpoint, according to Gaeckle, president of Carolina Pool Management.

‘Chaotic’

“It’s been chaotic for all of us,” said Gaeckle of companies that maintain outdoor swimming pools. “Since the beginning of March, people have pretty much stopped (because of the COVID-19 pandemic) doing what they would have done to prepare for spring openings. That’s pretty much ‘go time’ for us.”

Pool managers knew several weeks ago that Phase 2 of Cooper’s reopening plan would likely include swimming pools. However, details of how pools must be managed only became available after Cooper’s announcement Wednesday.

Gaeckle’s company manages 160 swim clubs to varying degrees in the metro-Charlotte area. About 50 of those are in South Carolina, where the reopening process started earlier. Gaeckle said most community pools will be open at the York County clubs he manages, but only a handful of clubs in North Carolina will be ready for reopening.

‘A whole different animal’

Count Charlottean Heather Hageman among those missing access to public pools. A swimming teacher and coach, she has a regimen of swimming four sessions per week, each lasting 30 minutes to an hour. Recently, she has had to use a shorter backyard pool, owned by a friend, to get in her exercise.

“It’s been really hard,” Hageman said of the shutdown of indoor and outdoor pools. “I didn’t realize how social this was for me, as well as fitness and (a source of) income.”

Hageman has friends who have turned to the lakes to get in their swims, but that’s not an adequate substitute to her.

“The pool is different from the lake,” Hageman said. “Being in a crystal-clear swimming pool with a black line on the bottom — with lane lines and lifeguards and locker rooms and showers — is a whole different animal.”

‘COVID cops’

Whether you use swimming pools as a source of exercise or a place to hang out with family, this summer will be different.

The socializing that typically happens on the decks surrounding pools likely isn’t practical. Gaeckle is recommending to the clubs he works with that they do away with pool furniture this summer.

“It’s unrealistic that (pool furniture) can be wiped down and sanitized after each use,” said Gaeckle.

Certifying hundreds of lifeguards under American Red Cross standards might be the biggest challenge. Completing training when pools were unavailable and when trainees had to keep 6 feet apart for social-distancing purposes interrupted that process.

Gaeckle said it’s important that pool patrons understand lifeguards can’t double as infection-control monitors.

“Our (life)guards cannot be COVID cops,” Gaeckle said. “They have to do what they’ve done every other season: Watch that water and keep people safe. They cannot be doing a head count of how many people are in the pool or ‘You’re too close, you’ve got to separate.’”

To that end, some pools will start out with a reservation system: For instance, a lane in a pool would be set off for each person swimming laps. Or a family might be limited to two-hour segments at a pool to stay within limited capacity.

Some pools will ask that masks be worn by patrons whenever they are not in the water.

Gaeckle said the chlorine in swimming pools works great at killing the virus. But everywhere else around a pool, patrons will have to be more mindful.

“The concern is not in the pool itself. The concern is the handrails, the furniture, the drinking fountains, the shower handles,” Gaeckle said.

“People have to take personal responsibility; own their own actions. They have to be vigilant to protect themselves and their neighbors.”

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