Photo: Underwood Pool will be closed this summer
A host of health, operational and financial risks proved overwhelming as the Select Board voted unanimously not to open the outdoor Underwood Pool for the summer season at the Board’s Monday, May 18 remote meeting.
“It’s the latest victim of COVID-19,” said Select Board Chair Roy Epstein referring to the novel coronavirus that has created so much uncertainty in that it has led to the cancellation or delay of many annual local events – the Memorial Day parade and the town election just to name two.
Not that the Select Board’s unanimous decision was a shock as the Recreation Commission revealed the same litany of issues thwarting the pool’s opening back in April.
The leading issue facing the Recreation Department was keeping patrons safe from the virus. Social distancing requirements – keeping patrons six-feet from each other – and other safety issues would limit the number of residents in the pool to 70, a quarter of a normal summer attendance.
“I don’t see how you can keep kids six-feet apart running around the pool,” said Select Board member Adam Dash, forcing lifeguards to spend more time on social distancing than water safety.
Another obstacle is the extensive prep work required to open the pool. The pool takes six weeks of lead time to get it up and running and that pre-work would need to begin by next week.
There is also a potential problem of having the manpower to get the job done. The town uses a team of low-cost prisoners from Middlesex County to do much of the physical preparation such as painting, repairs and landscaping. Currently, that option could be hard to come by. And the South Shore firm the town contracts to start and maintain the pools pumps have laid off most of their employees.
The biggest hurdle facing the Rec Department was how the pool was going to break even financially. In the memo to the Select Board, the Recreation Department was able to cobble together an abbreviated nine-week season starting July 1 that could recover cost. But that model would require capping the number of bathers at any time to 50 with a $14 admission fee to spend a predetermined 1 hour and 45 minutes at the pool.
Recreation Commission Chair Anthony Ferrante said the Recreation Department came up with its model based on a real community demand for opening the pool which would “be a really good morale boost for the community.”
But as Dash noted, the scheme doesn’t recognize rainy or cold days or if people will be comfortable spending time in a fenced-in area while COVID-19 remains active and deadly.
“There is a scenario that’s relatively narrow where [the pool] makes money or breaks even but many more scenarios where it goes very badly financially,” said Dash.
“I think there’s a lot of risk in opening the pool financially or health wise,” said Patrice Garvin, Belmont’s town administrator.