Public Pools in a Pandemic: Challenges of Reopening


Even as public and community pools are cleared to reopen for the summer, the technicalities of operating in a COVID-19 world persist.

By Matt Skoufalos | June 12, 2020

Roberts Pool, Collingswood. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

As an opening day, June 22 is a lot deeper into the summer calendar than is typical for most New Jersey swimming pools.

But scarcely anything about life during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been typical.

On June 9, New Jersey Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli outlined some of the guidelines under which the facilities may begin their reopening.

The restrictions include:

  • a 50-percent-of-capacity occupancy limit
  • separated entrances and exits
  • increased infection controls and sanitization
  • extra signage encouraging people to monitor their health
  • a preference for electronic payments
  • social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing


(For the full list, click here.)

Although these rules provide a blueprint for facilities like Roberts Pool in Collingswood and Crystal Lake Pool in Haddon Township to operate, even for a shortened season, the details are bedeviling.

From staffing concerns, to upkeep costs, to the enforcement of a new set of rules, local governments are challenged to make it all work for an amenity that is, at best, a break-even operation under normal circumstances.

“We have been working for weeks now on what do we do with the pool, if and when it comes, and I am hopeful in the next few days, to the extent that we can, we’ll have a plan,” said Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley.

But from the start, he acknowledged, “It’s not going to be the same.

“There are going to be restrictions,” Maley said. “Everybody may not be able to take part, or to participate. Everybody’s going to have to be flexible with that.”

Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley updates residents on the conditions at Roberts Pool, 6-12-20. Credit: NJ Pen.

For a start, there’s the task of calculating the occupancy of a roughly 216,000 square-foot outdoor space with six-foot barriers (and then halving it).

There’s the work of finding and hiring staff, traditionally local teens, to work the grounds and lifeguard.

And the facility has to be cleaned up for the season—this year, Collingswood will only wash the pool instead of repainting it, Maley said—including removing its communal seating and umbrellas.

Taken together, all those variables mean the pool won’t be ready for a June 22 opening.

“There’s still some practical operational issues,” Maley said. “There’s just not enough physical time to get it ready.”

Running Roberts Pool for the season costs about $225,000 per year, an expense largely offset by sales of seasonal and day passes. But another source of revenue is the license for its snack stand, which will not be in operation this season, Maley said. Neither will its recently improved playground be open, given a statewide moratorium.

Some staff will be assigned strictly to duties like monitoring head counts in bathrooms, or being social-distancing ambassadors. Lifeguards must be retrained in COVID-safe CPR using a bag-mask device. Guests will be advised to routinely monitor their health and stay away if they’re symptomatic or feverish.

It’s a given that the system won’t be airtight (“Have you seen kids play in the pool?” Maley said), but officials are hoping they can set up processes that mitigate as much risk as possible.

“You’ve got to think of it more as a swimming hole, if we can get there,” Maley said. “There’s just endless possibilities. It’s a lot.”

Randy Teague, Haddon Twp. Mayor. Credit: Haddon Twp.

In Haddon Township, Mayor Randy Teague said the municipal government is “going to do everything we can to open the [Crystal Lake] pool” by June 22, if not the following week.

Its $190,000 operating cost is typically “budget-neutral,” Teague said, although in a shortened season, it will be a challenge to meet that goal.

“Ordinarily by June 21, we’d have two-thirds of our revenue for the season,” the mayor said.

“Right now we have zero. But we do have a lot of interest.”

The township will begin selling seasonal and daily pool passes at Haddon Square beginning June 15, but Teague admitted that the pandemic and the shortened season may not draw out enough patrons to make its break-even goal.

“We’re trying to cut costs, but we’re going to have to hire additional staff and supplies,” he said.

“Anywhere we’re able to find savings, we’re hoping to find savings.”

Despite the complications, both mayors agreed that the extra effort is worth it to restore a valued community resource to their towns, especially during what has been a trying year.

“It’s a great asset for the community,” Teague said. “It’s summertime, everybody wants to get cool and get outside, and that’s what the pool is for.

“If everybody who came last year comes this year, we’ll be fine.”

Read our ongoing round-up of COVID-19 coverage here.

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