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Petitioners make waves to reopen park district pools

Park district sticks by closure citing health, high costs

June 16th, 2020 1:48 PM

The Park District of Oak Park is sticking to its plan to keep Rehm and Ridgeland pools closed this summer despite a recent petition to open them (Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer).

By James Kay

Sports Editor

As time is running out for there to be a summer swim season, over 700 people have signed a petition asking the Park District of Oak Park to open Ridgeland and Rehm pools this summer. The goal of the petition is to open the pool in a limited capacity where lap swimming, aquatic therapy and club team swim practices can take place.

The park district citing concerns over COVID-19 safety and the cost of operating on a limited attendance basis is sticking with its decision to cancel the full season.

"We are not suggesting [the park district] open up the pools without any restrictions," said one of the lead organizers, John Nicholls III.

"But we have an Olympic-sized pool that we aren't utilizing right now. We are still under Phase 3 of [Gov. J.B. Pritzker's] plan, so there's no groups of 10 or more people. We could have multiple groups of 10 that are spaced out 30 feet apart on deck. Spacing out the chairs and other things within the facility but there's got to be a way to figure this out and be responsible about it." 

On May 28, Jan Arnold, executive director of the park district, announced the pools would not open due to COVID-19 safety concerns. This was before the Illinois Department of Public Health released its swimming facility guidelines on June 5.

The second paragraph of the guidelines state, "During Phase 3, swimming facilities licensed by IDPH are not to be opened except for lap swimming, diving, swimming lessons, swim team practices, and therapy pool use. Water parks and bathing beaches are not to be opened in Phase 3."

The petitioners are arguing that, since there is new information coming from the state, there should be another discussion around whether the pools should remain closed.

"Look, I am someone with an autoimmune disorder," said Renee Burnett, who signed the petition. "When I get sick, it takes me a long time to get better, and I still support reopening the pools. We have more information now and Phase 4 is coming up on June 26 as well. We could have adult swims and schedule it so that there's not too many people. I would even wear a mask in the pool!"

Another group dealing with the ramifications of the pool not opening this summer are the club swim teams in the area. Academy Bullets, TOPS and Team Millennium all have swimmers who are looking to find space to get back into swim shape.

Team Millennium is composed mostly of swimmers from Oak Park and River Forest which makes Rehm and Ridgeland pools a prime location for the group to meet due to its accessibility. Since the local pools are closed at the moment, the team is looking to find space to practice (Oak Lawn being one of the options). However, since Oak Lawn is approximately 25 miles away from Oak Park, the swimmers would have to find a way to make the trek out there.

Team Millennium's head coach, Kathy Rigali, believes there is a way to make this happen.

"During our normal practices, we don't have more than eight or 10 swimmers in the lane and under [the IDPH's swim facility guidelines], we would be way under that," said Rigali. "No one is suggesting that things go back to normal but there are pools that are opening and being maintained."

Arnold responded to issues raised in the petition in an email to Wednesday Journal.

"While the CDC has indicated that pool water with properly maintained chemicals levels will likely kill the coronavirus, it is the other areas of the pool that cause us concern regarding virus transmission," she said in an email to the Journal on June 15.

"Even with enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, there are few guarantees. Finally, the safety of our lifeguard staff is of utmost concern. Unlike many other park district staff, their positions as life savers, put them frequently in close proximity to other staff, patrons and bodily fluids during rescues. This proximity cannot be avoided and puts staff in direct contact with a patrons' breath and/or bodily fluids when making a rescue."

In the email, Arnold said that even under Phase Four, which restricts gatherings of over 50 people, the park district sells over 9,500 pool passes and has over 100,00 visitors per season. Financially, it would become more difficult to create revenue if certain restrictions were to be implemented.

"Ultimately the decision to close the pools came down to the health and safety of our patrons and our staff," said Arnold. "We cannot, in good conscience, ask our staff to keep pool users safe when we cannot ensure their safety. Staff looks forward to bringing the pools back to full use for our community in 2021."

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