How to make healthy safe again?
That’s been the task set to Rachel Parra, recreation director at the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area, and her staff.
The Nikiski Pool and the Nikiski Community Recreation Center were closed down March 16 due to the new coronavirus.
June 1, the Nikiski Community Recreation Center reopened on a limited basis, followed a day later by the pool. Parra said reopening on just the limited basis took countless meetings and draft plans by North Pen Rec staff in order to account for information from state health mandates and advisories, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other parks and recreation resources.
Parra gave credit to Nigel LaRiccia, pool supervisor, for summing up the situation.
“Nigel said it best,” Parra said. “We’re parks and rec people. We’re used to changes on the fly. That’s what we do.”
Getting off the plateau
Michele Hartline of Nikiski is thankful for all the work the staff put in to get the pool open again.
Hartline’s grandchildren love coming down to visit her from Anchorage because of what Hartline calls “the best pool in the state of Alaska and the best playground in the state of Alaska.” In mid-September, Hartline’s grandkids bugged her about using the pool to work out.
“I’ve lost 120 pounds since September and a lot of it is due to what I did here,” Hartline said Friday while taking a pause from lap swim. “The last two months I’ve plateaued.
“In the two weeks since I’ve been back, I’ve lost 10 pounds.”
Hartline said her husband, Bill, also has used the Nikiski Pool to help in rehabilitating a knee replacement he had done at the beginning of the year. During the limited opening plan, lap swim is Tuesday through Friday. Hartline said she and her husband are hitting the pool three to four days per week.
Hartline said the pool is good for more than physical health.
“This is not just recreation,” she said. “This is also about community. It’s a hub for being social.”
Hartline retired from the oil industry and moved to Nikiski 22 years ago. From her experience in the oil industry, Hartline said she knows a top facility manager when she sees one. Hartline said Parra is in that class, adding that Parra also hires top-notch people.
According to the CDC, those over 65 are at higher risk from complications from COVID-19, including death. Because of the quality of Parra and her staff, Hartline is fine with coming to the pool as a senior citizen.
“I don’t feel at any way threatened in the pool,” Hartline said.
Cheryl Arrington of Kenai has similar confidence in the pool. Arrington lives at Vintage Point, a 40-unit housing complex for independent seniors in Kenai.
She was at the pool with her granddaughter, Finley Hendrickson, 3, and Finley’s mother, JJ Hendrickson of Kenai. The family would celebrate birthdays when they lived in Virginia by going to the beach, but the Nikiski Pool was the next best thing.
Arrington said many of the seniors at Vintage Point also used the Nikiski Pool.
Healthy for business as well
Alaska Aquatic Therapy also was using the Nikiski Pool on Friday. Co-owners Brittany Gardner, an occupational and physical therapist, and Kathy Gardner, an occupational therapist, depend on the Nikiski Pool and the pool at Skyview Middle School to run their business.
Alaska Aquatic Therapy uses the Nikiski Pool on Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
With the Skyview pool still closed down, Brittany Gardner said the Nikiski reopening was welcome news.
“It was a matter of keeping our business open,” she said. “It was huge.”
Business was slow with pools closed down.
“We were able to see a very low volume of people through telehealth and in-home care,” Gardner said. “Without access to the pool, the vast majority of patients were unable to enjoy the interventions we use the pool for.”
Getting back into the pool was not easy. The Gardners had to take into account guidelines from the state, CDC, and physical and occupational therapy licensing entities.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep our patients safe,” Brittany said.
Alaska Aquatic Therapy was founded in 1995 using the Nikiski Pool, so Brittany said working with Nikiski Pool to get back in business has been going back to the roots of the business.
“Nigel and Rachel did a great job,” Gardner said. “They were very open and direct with their communication.”
At full capacity, Gardner said Alaska Aquatic Therapy can see 35 patients per day at the pool. Currently, 12 to 20 patients are being seen, but Gardner hopes that will increase as the word gets out to patients and physicians that the Nikiski Pool is open. Gardner added she hopes to get back into Skyview by the first part of July.
Plan, plan, then plan again
The enjoyable, healthy swimming experiences of the Hartlines, Arrington and the Hendricksons, as well as the renewed business for Alaska Aquatic Therapy, came from the months of planning done by Parra and her staff.
Upon entering the pool Friday, Parra gave a reporter an 11-page document with small type describing only Phase 1 of the reopening for the pool and rec center.
“Our priority is the health of the community,” Parra said. “Our responsibility is to open up in as safe a manner as possible as a public facility.”
Phase 1 at the pool involves lap swim or walk, deep water exercise and the fitness room. The waterslide, diving board and spa are closed. There are no learn to swim classes.
LaRiccia said the pool can see 300 people per day through its doors during a normal summer, but Phase 1 has 10 to 15 people in the pool at once.
Phase 1 at the rec center includes hall walking, Full Swing Golf, spin bikes and outdoor recreation programs as weather permits.
“It’s very challenging to bring people together in small groups,” Parra said.
Encourage flow, discourage bottlenecks
The extensive measures taken to prevent grouping and maintain social distancing were apparent in a tour of the pool given to the Clarion on Friday. Everything now flows in the pool as if on an assembly line.
Swimmers, encouraged to wear face coverings and already having done health screening and any payment needed by phone, enter through the main entry and check in.
They then go to the locker room, where all lockers and benches are closed off with red tape. This is why swimmers must arrive in swim attire and with their own towels.
Only one sink, one toilet stall, one shower tree and one privacy shower are available. The men’s locker also has two urinals.
Swimmers shower and head to the pool, where lap swim is restricted to lanes 1, 3 and 5. If Alaska Aquatic Therapy is there, lane 5 is closed. Only members of the same household can be in the same lane.
After swimming, swimmers exit directly to the parking lot and cannot go back in the locker room.
“Locker rooms are an area where bottlenecks can occur,” Parra said.
Keeping it clean
Another challenge the staff faced was disinfecting.
“At what point does reopening make sense?” Parra said. “We have to spend so many resources disinfecting for such a small group of people.”
This is why lockers, some bathroom stalls, some sinks and large areas of the pool deck are closed off. This makes disinfecting much easier for the pool’s staff of five.
Add all the protocols for Alaska Aquatic Therapy, which uses a different entrance, and the complexities mount.
Then come small details, like water fountains being marked for bottle fill only and lifeguards having an assigned rescue tube to use each shift, which they must disinfect at the end of the shift.
Finally, what if something goes wrong? What if a swimmer collapses coughing within the facility? What if a swimmer needs rescue? Parra said all these scenarios needed to be rethought due to the threat of the coronavirus, though she added prompt rescue and medical attention remain the priority at the pool.
Remember, all of this is only at the pool. Procedures also are in place for the fitness room at the pool in addition to the Phase 1 options available at the rec center.
Reward at end of planning
Parra said the reward has been watching people from as far as Homer coming to use the pool again. Despite the curtailed space, Parra said very few haven’t been able to get their preferred time for a lap swim. Those that didn’t have been able to find a time that works.
The reward also has been seeing all the meticulously laid plans work. When asked if anything had come up yet that had surprised her or the staff, Parra laughed as she said no.
“We are that good,” she said. “We’ve had little to no kinks.”
The only good news out of the coronavirus shutdown is that the staff has gotten to do the thorough cleaning and maintenance normally done when the pool closes down for at least three weeks in September.
“Now, we’re leaning toward not closing in September,” Parra said.