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State’s Outdoor Pool Guidelines May Have Come Too Late For Many Would-Be Swimmers

Orbsey Pool, located on Pittsburgh's South Side, is a favored summer spot for kids and teens.

Despite new state guidelines that permit pools to operate under Pennsylvania’s yellow phase of COVID-19 reopening, many aquatic facilities in Allegheny County are likely to remain dry this summer.

“Up until Friday [May 22] we were anticipating there wouldn’t be an opening of the pools,” said Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald at a Wednesday press conference. “The state changed the guidelines the Friday before Memorial Day, which obviously makes it challenging.”

Fitzgerald said that the county is evaluating whether opening its four public pools is still possible.

“Even under the best circumstances in non-COVID years, we always struggle to find enough lifeguards to be able to staff the pools," he said. "This will add an additional challenge with the physical distancing, with locker rooms and snack bars."

For any facilities that do open, there will be limits on how many visitors are allowed to enter, and masks will be required when people are out of the water.

“A wet mask can make it hard to breathe, but a dry mask can protect the people around you,” said Dr. Debra Bogen, head of the county’s health department.

As of now, wading pools, spray pads, diving boards and slides remain closed. Bogen said that's in part because some equipment is difficult to sanitize and in part to discourage people from congregating.

The state’s new guidelines have not changed the city of Pittsburgh's decision to keep its 18 outdoor pools dry.

“Given the social distancing and health guidelines for pools that remain in place, the additional personnel required, as well as the hiring/training process and pool maintenance work that would still need to occur, the City does not believe municipal pools can be operated safely this summer,” said Dan Gilman, the mayor’s chief of staff, in an emailed statement.

A lack of swimming pools is part of a larger issue: People without air conditioning may struggle to find places to cool off this summer.

Public air-conditioned spaces prevent heat illness, which causes the death of roughly 660 Americans a year. Yet in addition to a number of pools, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh, malls, movie theatres and many community centers remain closed.

“We have to take a look at how many people will be showing up to those rooms, those crowded facilities. Would that be more of a health risk than being in the heat?” said Fitzgerald. “It’s one of those balances we’ll be working with our health department and with all the community centers to make people as safe as they can be.”