Photo: Lifeguard Elizabeth Levy, 17, watching over the wadding pool at the Underwood Pool on Labor Day, Sept. 7, 2015.
Registration for Belmont Recreation Department’s summer programs were going like gangbusters on the first of March as residents signed up their kids for the popular S.K.I.P. (Summer Kids Interested in Playing) Program and 170 pool passes had already been requested.
Then on Tuesday, March 10 “everything kind of went sideways,” said Jon Marshall, recreation department director and assistant town administrator speaking to the Recreation Commission via Zoom on Thursday, April 23.
That day Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts. And by the end of that week, the registrations and requests “all came to a screeching halt,” said Marshall.
Since then, the Recreation Department – which has already canceled all its spring programs and classes – had been looking to some way to salvage the summer activities including the popular Underwood Pool season.
Brandon Fitts, the assistant recreation director, had put together a hopeful plan looking at July 1 as the best date for the pool season to open. But that would require the town to give the department an OK to proceed by the first week of May as it requires two months in preparation to open the pool. It’s anticipated Baker will be extending the stay-in-place order by at least two weeks to mid-May.
Even if the facility opens, the big question, according to Select Board’s Adam Dash, is how to implement social distancing onto the swimmers and bathers in both the pool area but also the changing rooms, bathrooms, the grounds, and the admission’s area. Fitts said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending pools have a 25 percent swimmers/bather limit of the facility’s maximum, which at Belmont’s 325 max would be 82 people.
“From a public health point of view, I think this is a nightmare waiting to happen,” said Commissioner Kathryn Jones. “You’re never going to keep [young adults] six feet away from each other all the time.
Then there is the real question if anyone will want to come to the pool during a pandemic. “If we do open, we will have fewer people there. It’s either going to be from the COVID-19 situation or it’s just going to be the economics of it. I think we’d be lucky to have somewhere around 25 percent of what we did last year … it’s certainly a big impact,” said Marshall.
But the biggest obstacle facing opening the season is cost. While the pool has been a large revenue generator for the town, due to a later date opening and forced limitation on the number of people at the facility, the latest projection is the pool will be running a $171,000 deficit.
“Obviously the concern is this going to just be a big money lost if we open it. Not to say that is the be-all and end-all but we do have to take that into account,” said Dash, who said if the town is willing to open the pool at a deficit, that cost will come from another service or department.
While the pool season looks ever unlikely to occur, the SKIP program and other summer Rec Department events are currently “in a holding pattern,” according to Marshall. “I think if we do offer programs, they’re going to have to be different than the size and what they were going to be,” he said.
For example, the SKIP program takes in 80 children a session which requires the use of the gymnasium and the kitchen at the Wellington Elementary School. If there are changes due to social distancing or the lack of needed space, “we will need to change the fee structure. That’s only fair,” he said.
The Rec Department is now determining how it will refund the $125,000 it has taken in for SKIP registration and pool passes. “People are asking for them and I don’t want to hold that money out,” said Marshall.
With all the issues, Rec Commission members were nearly unanimous in feeling that a pool opening is simply not feasible in 2020. Chairman Anthony Ferrante said he would defer a vote on a recommendation to the Select Board until the commissions next meeting in May, “the governor may very well make [a decision] for us.”