Citing Water Safety, Washington Petitions to Accelerate Pool Reopening

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Stakeholders in Washington state are lobbying Gov. Jay Inslee to include swimming pools in an earlier phase of the state’s reopening via an online petition.

The petition, “Request to Open Pools in Washington,” has attracted just shy of 4,000 signatures as of Friday evening. Similar efforts are ongoing in Colorado and Illinois.

Washington’s effort involves a dispute of when and how pools can reopen. Washington’s recovery from COVID-19 is unfolding according to a four-phase plan, “Safe Start Washington.” Pools are set to reopen in Phase 3, as “recreational facilities at < 50 percent capacity.”

But coaches like David Orr, the executive director and head coach at Cascade Swim Club, want to convey to Inslee that not all swimming facilities should be grouped under the same heading. Facilities in the state have drastically different operating capacities and thus risk profiles for COVID-19 transmission.

“I just don’t think they understand it as well,” Alice Godfred, the head coach and owner of Olympic Cascade Aquatics, told Swimming World Friday. “And that’s the biggest hurdle, to get our voice heard and make them understand that this can be a very safe activity, especially for kids.”

Coaches in Washington hope to get a phased-in opening, what Orr and Godfred likened to a “soft opening.” Under that plan, swimming pools would be included in Phase 2 at a capacity lower than 50 percent capacity (likely less than 25 percent, probably starting at one to two swimmers per lane as per USA Swimming guidelines). That will allow clubs to train personnel in new procedures and acclimate swimmers to the new protocols before ramping up operations. They can start with easier or more pertinent tasks – like lap swimming or learn-to-swim classes – and gradually increase offerings.

“I think it’s very important, as it is in other sectors, to allow us to phase up,” Orr said. “To get the governor’s attention, I think it’s far more important to represent all of aquatics and for all of aquatics to come together with one voice. … This is a drive for us to come together and respectfully request of the governor to phase in swimming, phase in the opening of pools earlier.”

The effort has the support of the local swimming committee, Pacific Northwest Swimming, to which Godfred serves as the coaches representative. PNS convened a meeting this week of 147 stakeholders, from private and public clubs to summer teams, to inform Orr’s efforts. PNS has also published a letter on its website supporting a phased opening. PNS represents some 6,500 swimmers. All told between masters, recreational summer teams, YMCA and high schools, Orr estimates more than 10,000 swimmers in the state are out of the water.

Orr has worked directly with the governor’s office, particularly Inslee’s Senior Policy Advisor on Outdoor Recreation & Economic Development, Jon Snyder. The hope is for the governor to clarify the stance on pools, akin to what his office did this week with a proclamation regarding centers for “fitness and training”.

Among the government concerns, Orr said, are issues of staffing and social-distancing for lifeguards. The former falls under the category of hiring freezes and could create imbalance in the Washington landscape if private clubs open before public ones. Orr’s Cascade Swim Club, for instance, practices at eight facilities. He’s braced for having to tailor opening plans for each and also to improvise if some can’t open.

None of this will reopen pools immediately. Washington was one of the early epicenters of the COVID-19 outbreak, but it was successful in flattening its case curve. As of Friday, it has seen 20,274 cases of COVID-19 and 1,061 deaths. But its per capita infection rate of 266 cases per 100,000 people ranks just 27th among states.

Inslee has taken a conservative tack in reopening. Only 14 of 39 counties had entered Phase 2 as of Friday. Another 11 counties are eligible to apply for Phase 2, leaving 14 counties mired in Phase 1. Orr and Godfred estimate it could be another four to six weeks before their areas reach Phase 3, leaving a shift to Phase 2 as their best hope to salvage the summer season.

The issue of pool reopening takes on heightened urgency because of Washington’s ample coastlines and natural waterways. Godfred, for instance, lives on Mercer Island. Closed pools will drive swimmers, some of them underprepared, into more dangerous waters.

“We are worried about the impact on youth, and the longer we go without teaching swim lessons is critical,” Orr said. “It could have a very adverse effect on the drowning rates in the state. That’s not something to make light of. That’s a real, real concern. You’re forcing everybody to go into more dangerous water than controlled water that has guards and coaches. We’d much prefer that we get back to our controlled environment, and we all have ways of making that work at every single phase.”

Swimming Through a Pandemic

The postponements and cancellations wrought by COVID-19 haven’t just affected the Olympics and the ranks of elite swimmers. They’ve trickled down to neighborhood clubs and summer youth leagues, affecting thousands of recreational and competitive swimmers alike. Here is some of our coverage of COVID-19’s effect on the American summer swimming calendar.

Resources for returning to the pool in the COVID-19 era

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2 comments

  1. Ja Bounce

    Why not involve (if one is within proximity) Major University to assist with testing pool testing of, Temps (air, H2O,) Athletes- before, during, & After sets). Also test CONDITIONS (Air, Water, Outside venue or Indoor). Maybe throw in (for kicks & giggles) air quality samples & fiber samples from HVAC filters… For starters… Just a thought.

    • Rob Richardson

      Ja Bounce sounds like a great college student research project – we have 60K plus students at ASU Tempe campus – I am sure one of them would be interested – which would allow us back into the water

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