With many city watering holes closed for the season due to COVID-19, residents try to find new ways to cope with the heat

Every year, Highlands Park Aquatic Center in Westerville opens on Memorial Day weekend, welcoming hundreds of swimmers into its array of pools, splash pads and slides. Solstice notwithstanding, this represents the start of summer for many — and in 2020, it never came.

Legally, Highlands could have opened on schedule this year, so long as it adhered to the Responsible RestartOhio standards laid out by the Ohio Department of Health, measures designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The rules are rigorous, calling for strict social distancing requirements in and out of the water, disinfecting pool chairs and tubes between each use, and other adjustments that would have significantly altered the usual experience of staff and swimmers alike.

On May 22, under the guidance of the Franklin County Public Health Department, the City of Westerville announced that rather than work harder than ever to deliver an inferior experience, they were keeping Highlands closed for the rest of 2020. According to an email sent to season pass holders, “The conditions would require significantly reduced admissions for visitors each day, limited hours of operations and a significantly shortened season.”

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Many other municipalities in Central Ohio made the same call. A handful of area pools are allowing a limited number of customers to book scheduled time slots, among them Tremont and Devon in Upper Arlington, Westerville Jaycee Community Pool, Northwest Swim Club, Minerva Park Pool and Plain City Aquatic Center. But the vast majority of Columbus suburbs have shuttered their public pools until next year rather than risk making the pandemic worse (or being held liable for someone catching COVID-19).

Other pools are leaving open the possibility of opening this year. Dublin’s Pool South and Indoor Lap Pool may open after July 1. As for the pools under the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department’s jurisdiction — as well as splash pads like the Scioto Mile Fountain — it’s all still up in the air. “We are working hard to restore access to as many of our programs and facilities as soon as possible, and will do so when we’ve implemented protocols that ensure the safety of residents and staff,” Rec and Parks spokesperson Kerry Francis said.

Never has the advantage of owning or having access to an in-ground backyard pool been so evident. Even some private pools within developments and apartment complexes have opted to wait. In a June 9 email, management at Powell condo community the Villas at Woodcutter informed residents that the clubhouse and gym would be closed indefinitely. “While relying on volunteers to carry out Delaware County Health Department's mandated compliance regimen to its fullest would be an option,” property manager Susan Briggs wrote, “ultimately the liability falls back on the Association, the Board members themselves and possibly the management company.”

With so many options drying up, families that once depended on the ritual of the summertime swimming pool visit have had to be resourceful. “We were at the indoor pool in March when the stay at home order was issued,” said North Linden resident Sarah Fusner, a mother of two, aged 6 and 5. “We thought, ‘If school’s canceled we’ll just come to the pool every day.’ But a couple days later the pools were closed, too.”

Fusner said during a normal summer her family would frequently swim at Tuttle and Maryland pools. To cool off while those locations are closed, they’ve dabbled in creeking at Metro Parks, taken two trips to Alum Creek and set up a sprinkler and small pool in the yard — options that may not be there for families without easy access to transportation or a yard. Others have attempted to procure inflatable pools and come up empty handed due to the heavy demand.

“If you wanted to buy anything for your backyard, you can’t find it,” said Rachel Flaherty of Lewis Center. “People are selling $25 Walmart pools for like $80.” Flaherty has four kids, aged 8, 6, 3 and 1, with a fifth on the way. She said a pool trip during the pandemic would be impossible even if she and her husband worked together to supervise the children. “I don’t know how I could keep track of that many kids with what the rules are,” Flaherty said. “There’s no way I could handle all of them and keep them away from other kids.”

It may be tough for anyone to maintain social distancing at a large waterpark, but after a few weeks of delay to adjust for the COVID era, Zoombezi Bay is going to give this season a go.

The park is opening to season pass holders on Friday, June 19, and to the general public three days later, with timed ticketing and no more day-of sales. Some attractions will be closed, others operating at reduced capacity, and the park is working to spread out seating and parking to prevent large groups from congregating.

Zoombezi may be an option for some, but Fusner considers it "too pricey" to work as a substitute for everyday pool trips. "It's also difficult to navigate by myself with two kids," she says. "It's easier to keep track of them in a smaller pool area." With that option still off the table for now, keeping the kids cooled off and occupied remains an ongoing challenge. "We’re going to need to be more creative coming up."