How Parks and Recreation Safely Brought Back Aquatics Programming

June 17, 2021, Department, by Jennifer Kansanback

2021 July Operations How Parks and Recreation Safely Brought Back Aquatics Programming 410

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Park and recreation departments across the United States were given a tough assignment in spring 2020: encourage your community to stay healthy by getting exercise outdoors, but also ask them to take as many precautions as possible against spreading coronavirus (COVID-19). The mixed message was not an easy sell amid shifting public agency budget forecasts and public health mandates. Understandably, some cities opted to suspend recreation activities and close facilities indefinitely until the dust settled.

It was during this same time period that the City of American Canyon in California’s Napa County asked itself: If we can make it safe for our community to still get exercise outdoors at our facilities, do we have to close them down? This intellectual curiosity in the face of adversity resulted in the city finding a way to safely reopen its Phillip West Aquatic Center and, eventually, gain national recognition for its innovative efforts.

Key Operational Changes

Before reopening the center, the department created extensive operational guidelines with four major changes:

  1. In-depth sanitation procedures
  2. Reduced maximum capacity
  3. An updated physical layout, including new signage and graphics, to allow for physical distancing and one-way pedestrian traffic flow
  4. A requirement that aquatics instructors only work from on-deck rather than in the water

After local officials approved the guidelines, the aquatics management team quickly brought back furloughed lifeguards and trained them on the new sanitation procedures, such as thorough disinfection between class sessions.

Three-Phase Reopening

To ensure compliance with the operational changes and that the facility would have enough fully trained staff, the park and recreation department opted to reopen the center in three phases:

  • Phase 1 — mid-June 2020: The center brought back programs in which participants could easily practice physical distancing: lap swimming and water aerobics.
  • Phase 2 — late June 2020: The center began allowing swim team pool rentals and limited open swim.
  • Phase 3 — early July 2020: The center increased capacity to the maximum allowed (25 percent) and reinstated programs for all swimming levels.

Instructors and lifeguards received child development training to teach parents how to work with their children in the pool. Various role-playing scenarios helped prepare staff for the new way of instructing classes. The majority of lessons offered throughout the summer reached capacity and were well-received by community members.

Special Lifeguard Training

The team responsible for the reopening plan created one of the first COVID-19-compliant lifeguard training programs in the country, which now serves as a nationwide model. The department followed the American Red Cross COVID-19 Guidance for distance learning and expanded its online teaching platform. During in-person training, lifeguards received personal protective equipment and manikins to practice with. When physical distancing was not possible, lifeguards brought people from their own households to complete the rescue skills and final scenarios. The city has since learned that park and recreation departments across the country have used the same training to reopen their aquatics centers. 

The center has continuously served all ages, abilities and swimming levels throughout the pandemic. Although the center has had to operate at a reduced capacity, a broader range of swimmers than usual have been participating in programs and activities. As an additional bonus, the swimming programs pay for themselves through user fees, saving the city money.

In November 2020, Aquatics International magazine named the center “2020 Best of Aquatics,” recognizing the department for its extensive reopening plan and innovative response to COVID-19. Today, American Canyon’s Phillip West Aquatic Center remains open with firm safety protocols in place.

Jennifer Kansanback is Communications Manager for City of American Canyon.