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Guest Column: City Pool is Back in Business… Sort of

Submitted by Sylvia Gurtowski, Vicksburg City Pool manager

2020, and so far, the first half of 2021, has been, in a word, challenging.

There is not a single church, school, business, activity or person that has not felt the effects of the virus known by most as COVID-19. Swimming pools, more specifically our own City Pool, are no exception.

Mildly stating, the past 14 months have been beyond confusing and unlike anything we have faced in our lifetimes. The same is true for the programs and staff at City Pool. Last year, solely because of the virus, we were unable to open for recreation swimming due to the high risk of exposure. Holding our regular Learn to Swim Program was out of the question, as well as many of our normal activities. We were able to allow the area swim teams to hold practices, provided that they kept the number of swimmers inside the gate under 20 and, likewise, a limited number of lap swimmers were permitted to swim. That was the extent of our activities last year. And we were thrilled to be able to offer them.

By January, things were not looking much better as far as the threat of COVID went. No one really knew what the future would hold. We started working out different scenarios on how we could open successfully, if only for a limited number for a limited time. As we do now, we were following CDC guidelines for public pools as closely as possible. However, it seemed that every day there was different information coming out. Things were changing quicker than we could keep up.

Now, thanks to the great response to and the effectiveness of the vaccines, instead of mandates, we have “highly encouraged” recommendations. We can’t speak for others, but here at City Pool, we have had to step back and take a breath while trying to process this ever-changing information. All the while, we are caught in a severe lifeguard shortage. We are two weeks from opening, and as of now, we have only four lifeguards on staff. To open the pool fully and safely to 100 people, we need at least 20 lifeguards, with a preference for 25. This is a large, Olympic-size pool with a considerable kiddie pool as a sidekick. The two together hold 450,000 gallons of liquid summer. With such a large facility, under normal circumstances, we run two shifts a day with 9 to 12 lifeguards on duty for each. We can state with confidence that this is not happening this year.

The nationwide lifeguard shortage has been going on for several years. Young people now have more opportunities in the workforce; some go to summer school while others line up several summer athletic camps and activities that would keep them from holding a steady job. Another huge reason for City Pool’s guard shortage is the fact that, with good reason, we do not hire anyone under the age of 16. Lifeguards can certify at the age of 15, so most newly trained lifeguards find work at other facilities. We also were not able to hire any new guards last year due to the pandemic. All of the above factors have contributed to where we stand now with the lack of guard staff.

With COVID still a threat, and our impending lifeguard shortage, in late April, we finally had to draw the line and put our best plan in place. We are committed to keeping everyone as safe and healthy as possible. We will continue to follow the guidelines suggested by the CDC They are the best source of reliable information regarding the remaining threat of COVID and other communicable diseases. We knew that we would not be able to offer the popular American Red Cross Learn to Swim Program again this year because there is no way to avoid close contact between student and instructor and still have an effective class. We are thinking of patron and staff safety.  It is still too risky to take that chance.

We would like to thank the community for being so patient and understanding. Believe me when I say, it has been a year unlike any other for us as well. We understand the restrictions are many but please know that, as always, our main objective is to keep our patrons and our staff safe and healthy while enjoying a little bit of normalcy.

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