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"Jeff's big ass sign," posted next to the pool at River Road Parks and Recreation district's aquatic center. (Duncan Baumgarten/Daily Emerald)

Jeff Fryer, the aquatics director at River Road Parks and Recreation district, said his staff calls it “Jeff’s big-ass sign.” 

Fryer posted the large sign — “please don your face covering upon exiting the pool” — next to the pool, in red. It’s one of many signs reminding patrons to socially distance when possible, to wear masks and to maintain the new safety standards pools throughout Lane County are now implementing.

Since Lane County entered phase two of reopening on June 5, the county’s recreation districts received the green light to reopen their pools as well, with new safety standards, new regulations and new concerns about breaking even financially following the extended closure of recreational facilities.

Pool protocol

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began releasing information about safe aquatic center function in May. “All decisions about implementing these considerations should be made locally,” the CDC stated on its website, “in collaboration with local health officials.” The centers clarified that while patrons should wear face coverings when realistic, they should not wear masks in the water.

The Oregon Health Authority released its own state-specific guidance. “If a visitor has symptoms of COVID-19,” OHA instructed, “staff must ask them to leave the pool, provide the visitor with a face covering or mask, and help the visitor minimize their contact with staff and other visitors before exiting the facility.”

Many pools are focusing on lap swimming only, for now, with River Road parks and recreation accommodating some water exercise classes, as well. Willamalane Park’s warm water pool, dive tank and spa are open, reducing the number of patrons allowed in areas at any given time.

By and large, Lane County pools use a standard protocol regarding facility use for patrons to follow. Patrons must register a spot in the pool in advance and maintain social distancing, when possible. 

Advanced registration assists in contract tracing, according to Craig Smith, the City of Eugene Recreation director, since aquatics staff can figure out the exact time a person was in the pool and for how long.

Masks are required up until the point of entering the pool, with the City of Eugene’s outdoor pools allowing patrons to take off their mask once they are on deck. River Road and Willamalane Park require masks to be worn in all places, other than in the water.

Lifeguards consistently clean high touch points, like handrails. Some, like Willamalane Park and River Road, are not currently allowing patrons to use lockers to stow their belongings, since the task of cleaning the lockers on a regular basis would overtax the facilities’ staff. Both pools have designated plastic chairs on deck as places to hold belongings while patrons are swimming.

Willamalane Park

Willamalane Park’s swim center opened on June 20, according to its aquatic program director, Brandon Lemcke. He said that the reopening was a natural decision.

“One of the things that we look at, especially in aquatics is, we provide a service for people,” he said. “Some of the individuals that come into our building, that's the only time they can move without pain — when they're in the water, when they're suspended in water. And so, we look at ourselves as more of a service than anything.”

Lemcke said that conversations with other facilities early on centered around how to preserve the pools during lockdown. “These buildings,” he said, “they don’t like not having people in them. We have to have constant water flowing, even if nobody’s in it. We still need to have chlorine in it. We still need to have UV on all of our waters, for sanitary reasons. And so, the early conversations are, ‘What are you guys doing?’”

Lemcke said that he was concerned by the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Oregon. That put the brakes on deciding whether to reopen Splash! at Lively Park, their water park, he said.

“It most definitely has changed how we would reopen it,” he said. “If it does reopen, it will most definitely not be in the manner of what it had planned on two weeks ago.”

He said that Willamalane Park has been tightening its belt, financially, in the event of a second shutdown. “And we've been doing that since March,” he said. “And so I think, if we are forced to close back down, we would survive.

River Road Parks and Recreation

River Road Parks and Recreation district opened up their aquatics center on July 1. Fryer said that he and his staff had been battling the issue of face coverings, and getting people to abide by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown's order that face masks be worn in indoor spaces. "Either they don't care, they're ignorant, they don't get it, they feel entitled — who knows why," he said.

River Road's aquatics facilities closed on March 13. Fryer said that about a month into the closure, staff debated whether they would even be financially able to reopen.

With a lack of money coming in from programs, he said it put the district in a tough financial position. That's why the district wanted to have instructor-led classes available, he said, in order to try and regenerate some revenue that was lost over the past few months.

"My main concern is that, if we don't adequately enforce this face covering mandate, then if there's enough complaints to county health, county health can say, 'you're not doing enough' and they can say, 'no, you're not eligible to remain open,'" he said. "Obviously, having been closed 14, 15 weeks, we don't want to have to turn around and have to close again, right away."

The City of Eugene

The City of Eugene Recreation opened Amazon Pool on June 21, and Sheldon Pool on July 13, according to Smith.

Greeters at the front desk conduct health check questionnaires, he said, to see whether patrons have COVID-19 symptoms. Monitors sit in the locker room, Smith said, making sure that people maintain appropriate social distancing. 

Smith said he’s communicated with other pools in the area to figure out how to administer swim lessons. “And then the next question is, can we ever get away with a small number of people who are doing recreational swims — meaning they’re just hanging out in the pools, kids are going down the slide.” 

He said that recreational swims are the ones that pack pools, with people touching many surfaces. “And it’s hard to control,” Smith said.

Smith said that Recreation’s forecast for revenue is at a loss. “We’ll have more information as we do a couple more weeks of summer to see how it goes,” he said. “But it’s significant. So it’s going to take us several years to ramp back up from this past six months of this current time period.” 

“I think we're doing everything we possibly can for people to experience a summer here in Eugene, like it normally would be,” Smith said.

This story was updated on July 29 to correct a name misspelling.

Duncan is an associate news editor for the Daily Emerald. Previously, he was the crime reporter. He likes buying books he'll never read and trying to figure out how to be a good father to his constantly underwatered plants.