How suburban pools are opening under COVID-19 guidelines starting this weekend
Few things signal summer's arrival like a splash at the local pool, and many suburbanites will be able to enjoy just that starting this weekend.
Weather permitting, it will feel like a welcome return to normalcy after most pools remained closed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but swimmers will see changes this year, such as online reservations, fewer amenities and, yes, mask requirements.
Bobbie Jo Hill, spokeswoman for the Illinois Association of Park Districts, said its members are working hard to meet the state's guidelines in the current Bridge Phase of the Restore Illinois plan. Outdoor pools can have maximum groups of 100 bathers, with multiple groups allowed with proper distance. Indoor pools can have up to 100 bathers or 60% of capacity, with distanced groups.
"The upcoming season will be a challenge/opportunity in regard to hitting the sweet spot between user expectation and COVID mitigations," said Rob Ward, director of operations for the Schaumburg Park District.
Schaumburg's Atcher Island and Meineke Pool, as well Palatine's Birchwood Pool, Eagle Pool and Family Aquatic Center, will be among the first to open for the season -- all by reservation only. All five pools had planned to open Saturday, but a final decision will be made in the morning based on the weather and might include allowing only lap swim so lifeguards can get practice, officials said.
Others have decided to postpone, such as the Wheeling Park District's Family Aquatic Center, which hadn't scheduled a new opening day.
Yet others will open in the coming weeks.
Sea Lion Aquatic Park in Lisle, which opens June 5, began taking reservations last weekend for residents and will do so for nonresidents starting this weekend, said Dan Garvy, director of park and recreation for the Lisle Park District.
Elgin's Lords Park Family Aquatic Center will remain closed for the season, but the city is looking forward to seeing patrons at Wing Park Family Aquatic Center, Parks and Recreation Director Maria Cumpata said.
In Libertyville, Adler Pool and Riverside Pool will open June 12. The date was chosen based on the timing of staff training as well as the end of classes for local schools, said Julie Ludwig, recreation manager for the city's parks and recreation department.
Changes will include two- to three-hour slots for patrons, and concession stands not offering foods such as hot dogs and pizza, although there will be bottled drinks, ice cream, candy, chips and nachos, Ludwig said.
In Palatine, no season passes are being sold and residents will get priority for reservations, although they can bring nonresident guests, said Mike Clark, executive director of the Palatine Park District.
Masks and amenities
The Illinois Department of Public Health's latest pool guidelines from May 5 say employees and customers should wear masks while not swimming. However, state guidance on mask use from May 18 says that only people not vaccinated need to wear them in public, when unable to maintain a distance of six feet from others.
In Libertyville, masks will be required upon entering, in locker rooms and while roaming around, but not in the water, Ludwig said.
In Elgin, only unvaccinated people will need to wear masks. "Signs are posted at entrances informing guests of the rule, and it is the responsibility of individuals to comply," Cumpata said.
Gov. J.B. Pritzker anticipates that Phase 5 would begin June 11, which means more changes.
Phase 5 will bring open swim at Elgin's indoor Adventure Island, now open only for lap swim for members and activities such as swim lessons and water aerobics.
But some amenities at Sea Lion Aquatic Park -- such as the flume and drop slides, the leisure pool and concession stand -- will not be available for the season, even in Phase 5, Garvy said.
A few facilities had some maintenance issues after the yearlong closure, but nothing too dramatic, officials said.
"It is fairly standard to have small leaks, pump issues and general wear and tear at the outdoor aquatic facilities. COVID simply placed some additional burden upon startup at Atcher since it wasn't utilized last season," Ward said.
Trouble with staffing
The pandemic was tough financially, so 2021 is about being financially conservative and creative with resources, Garvy said. For example, the staff decided to use parts from pool features that will not be operational, like the leisure pool, for those that will be.
In Elgin, the Elgin Allies volunteer group helped with preseason cleaning, Cumpata said.
Many among the more than 300 park districts across the state had difficulties finding lifeguards this season, Hill said.
That was indeed the case in Libertyville and Lisle, where not being able to interact with local high school students in person hurt, Garvy said.
Park districts have been sharing ideas about how to attract qualified individuals, such as via "targeted email campaigns" to swim coaches and local colleges and high schools, Hill said.
Lisle used testimonials from returning seasonal staff members and an increased social media presence. Palatine offered free lifeguard certification classes at Harper College's pool.
Schaumburg and Elgin said hiring lifeguards was not a huge issue.
Ward credited the district's reputation, along with having a pool open last year and a year-round pool at the Community Recreation Center.
Cumpata pointed to Elgin increasing its hourly wage for starting lifeguards to $12.25, after the state's minimum wage increased to $11 this year.
Nearly half the park district employees statewide are under age 25, Hill said. "As the vaccines become more prevalent and available to the younger population, maybe that will make a difference," she said.
No matter the logistical difficulties, "it definitely does not cast a shadow on the upcoming season," Hill said.
"Our member agencies are very enthusiastic about opening their aquatic facilities this summer -- as are their residents."