For the second full season in a row, the West Plains Aquatic Center will not open for summer.
West Plains city officials made the announcement Tuesday afternoon that both outdoor pools in the facility will stay closed to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, due in part to recent information provided to the City of West Plains from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
The decision was made by Mayor Jack Pahlmann on Tuesday morning after an informal poll in Monday evening's city council meeting led to a wait-and-see approach, pending the Parks & Recreation Department's ability to recruit enough lifeguards. After receiving CDC guidelines on opening youth programs and camps during the pandemic, however, Pahlmann opted to keep the aquatic center closed.
The guidelines state that an entity should only open if reopening is consistent with applicable state and local orders, children and employees at higher risk of severe illness can be protected and screening for children and employees is available upon arrival for symptoms and history of exposure.
Citing the current city ordinance requiring social distancing, concerns about sanitation and other issues, Parks & Recreation Director Mike Davis told the council Monday evening the Parks Board and his department recommend keeping the West Plains Aquatic Center closed for the summer.
Davis said he and the board looked at different plans such as limiting occupancy, not allowing rentals and closing the waterslide.
“There’s just no way we can guarantee social distancing and have the pool open,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Topliff said he was disappointed with the recommendation, noting the city ordinance is set to expire at the end of the month. City Attorney Charles Cantrell chimed in, via video conferencing, pointing out the ordinance wouldn’t have any bearing on the city pool. The liability concerns would be minimal to the city if an infection was traced back to the pool, he said.
Councilman Cary Stewart asked Davis what other issues would hinder the pool from opening and Davis said that in order to get the pool opened, he would need to get lifeguards trained and order all of their equipment.
“One of the factors is that they would pay for their training and then, after they work so many hours, we would reimburse that,” Davis said. “We won't be able to do that, and we’ll have to pay it straight out, because if something was to come back we couldn’t hold them to that,” he added referring to the possibility of an increases in the number of cases of coronavirus infection.
There have been no confirmations of the new coronavirus in Howell County since April 16, and none in West Plains since April 7.
Davis told the council that, during a normal pool season, the pool usually sees around 12,000 people, but with a limited opening and other safety precautions, he estimates the number for this season would be around 3,200 people.
“That would significantly impact our revenue that would be brought in,” Davis said. He added the loss for the months that pool is open is around $138,000 under normal circumstances.
Pahlmann noted that even though Springfield is opening its pools for the summer, that city has been struggling to find lifeguards. He asked Davis if West Plains was having a similar issue.
“Currently, I have eight lifeguard applications, however, the swim team has told me they can bring in several lifeguards,” Davis said. He added the city needs 30 lifeguards to open the pool.
Councilwoman Jessica Nease asked if the city would have to hire staff in addition to lifeguards to help with increased cleaning and sanitizing.
Davis said it would have to be a possibility, as the plan he presented to the Park Board included rotating the pools every two hours to allow for deep cleaning.
Councilman Josh Cotter and Nease each raised concerns about safety and the costs of opening the pool.
Finance Director Todd Harman agreed with the financial concerns with regard to reopening the pool during a shortened season, and said with the predicted shortfall in revenue, the move would be financially risky.
Despite the safety and financial concerns, Topliff and Stewart expressed support for reopening the pool, as did Pahlmann, initially.
“People will have to use their own discretion,” Stewart said. “The kids did not have their pool last year, they got an opportunity to have it this year.”
Community Services Director Todd Shanks then approached the podium and told council members the recommendation to close was made in order to protect public health and safety.
Pahlmann asked whether it is possible at this time to recruit 30 lifeguards, and suggested possibly revisiting the pool topic in the future.
“Discussing it at this point and time without knowing, without lifeguards, they’re as important as water,” Pahlmann said. “If he can’t get even eight people, what’s the point in even trying to open?”
He proposed giving Davis until Friday to find out how many potential lifeguards he could find, and Davis agreed.
In making his decision on Tuesday, considering the local, state and national six-foot social distancing mandates in place, Pahlmann said he did not believe Parks & Recreation staff could adequately enforce social distancing in a community pool environment, in addition to protecting higher risk individuals and screening for symptoms and histories of exposure.
“It’s about the health and welfare of our community,” said the mayor. “As much as we want our children to be able to have access to the outdoor pools this summer, their safety – and those of our employees – is the top priority for us.”
The aquatic center was closed last summer for repairs.