Top 5 Aquatics Questions during COVID-19

This content was written by Gareth Hedges, Founder and CEO of H2O Safety Consulting. As former President of Redwoods, Gareth continues to collaborate with us to provide cutting edge guidance and insights on aquatic safety for youth-serving community organizations.

Over the past few weeks, we have received tons of detailed technical questions about how to reopen our facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the patchwork of local reopenings, and the unprecedented impact this pandemic has on our industry, there is little in the way of one-size-fits-all guidance.

However, we have seen some themes. Here are the top 5:

Question 1: Are we ready to reopen?
Just because you can reopen, does not mean that you should. While there is certainly a strong desire to return to normal, all facilities still need to be prepared to do so safely. Before reopening, you need to be sure that you have enough staff to safely operate, that they are trained and ready to do their jobs, that you can comply with the new guidelines for distancing and sanitation and that you can safely manage your facility with the equipment and operational changes you need. It is also important to look beyond your state or local orders to decide whether it is safe for you to open. For example, Redwoods recommends the following minimum criteria be met prior to opening:

  1. Two weeks of documented declining deaths in your state or metropolitan area
  2. Adequate capacity for the local healthcare system to treat all those projected to need care at the peak
  3. Testing available for all who have symptoms or are at risk
  4. Substantially improved capacity to monitor all active cases and to track contacts

Question 2: How do we maintain social distancing guidelines for the safety of our staff and guests?
When we reopen, and for the foreseeable future, our staff and guests will have to behave differently in order to maintain social distancing. This will look different depending on whether you are an indoor or outdoor facility, what type of locker rooms, bathrooms, and entrances you have, and what type of programming you run. But there will be a few common conditions. First, social distancing guidance requires that people remain 6-feet apart from one another. This can likely be maintained in lap swimming by limiting the number of swimmers and assigning or reserving lanes. Lifeguards will need to enforce distancing rules by reminding swimmers not to congregate at the wall, for example. Programs that require 1-1 contact such as swim lessons may need to be suspended during social distancing, or modified to eliminate close contact. Masks should be worn by guests and staff whenever distancing cannot be maintained, however we know that masks are not effective or practical in the water. Best practice will be to modify guest flow to reduce close contact, for example by using broader entries than the locker room, limiting the number of people that can come in or out at a time and creating staging areas or rearranging deck furniture to promote distancing.

Question 3: How can we continue to train our staff and maintain distancing?
To maintain a safe facility, your lifeguard staff still must be continuously trained and tested, just like before the pandemic, however with modifications. Training classes and in-service should be done with no more than 10 people in a group. Refer to your certifying agency for new in-person training guidelines and always in conjunction with your local health agencies. Guards should have their own non-shared PPE and equipment whenever possible, and this equipment should be sanitized frequently and before and after use. While this is a big change from the recommendation of realistic training using real people for victims, during this time more use of training and CPR mannequins and other non-body methods will be important. This is also a good time to reinforce skills that are often overlooked, such as active scanning and rotation procedures. Ellis and Associates has published an excellent comprehensive resource that can serve as a guide for training and care modifications.

Question 4: Am I exposed to new liability if I open?
An aquatic facility operator is always open to liability for injuries to its users, which is why maintaining a safe operation in compliance with all state and local codes, and meeting or exceeding the standard of care in the industry is important. In regard to liability for common aquatic injuries such as slip and fall and drowning injuries, the liability remains the same—there is no loosening of the standard of care simply because of the additional burden of social distancing. Even with modifications, it will be important to evaluate and document that you are maintaining the same or a similar level of safety in your facility. A tougher question is whether or not you could be liable for a user that contracts the virus and claims that it was due to your negligence at your facility. We expect to see an increase in these cases in all types of facilities, and will monitor how they progress. At this time, the best protection you can have when you reopen is to follow all state and local guidelines, maintain and document your disinfecting and social distancing policies, and make necessary changes as new information is disseminated to keep your staff and guests safe.

Question 5: What does the new normal look like?
This is really the biggest question facing aquatic leaders right now. We have the guidance on how to reopen, and have solid criteria to use in determining when to reopen, but the question each leader should ask is: should we reopen, and why? What is our mission, who are we trying to serve, and how do we do it better than we did before? In my experience consulting with aquatics leaders, they often felt unable to make changes to some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of their operations, because to make the change would be too big a disruption. Now we have had the disruption anyway, and its our opportunity to never run unsafe or inefficient programs again. For example, many YMCAs prior to the shutdown commonly ran single-guard facilities with only small numbers of swimmers, often during the mid-morning and mid-afternoon hours. We now have the opportunity to schedule swim times to be more efficient using scheduling software, and closing the pool during low-usage times. We can insist on requiring life-jackets for non-swimmers. And we can eliminate programs that were not sustainable for our organizations or serving the needs of our community. During this time of evaluation and planning, it’s important not to simply jump to “how”, but to start with “why” we run our programs and to create the new normal we want to see.