June 17, 2020

Will Community Park Pool Reopen? Decision is Set for This Week

By Anne Levin

Growing up in Princeton, Ben Stentz spent summers swimming at Community Park (CP) Pool. His first job, at age 14, was at the pool. His son learned to swim there.

“There is nobody more invested than me in having the pool be open and successful this summer,” said Stentz, who is executive director of the Princeton Recreation Department. “There are so many wins if we get it open. My staff has put everything we have into this. But as Gov. Murphy likes to say, ‘It’s complicated with pools.’ “

The COVID-19 pandemic has left the fate of public pools in New Jersey uncertain for the summer of 2020. While Gov. Murphy announced on June 10 that pools can legally open on June 22, the list of considerations — from social distancing to liability concerns — is extensive. On Thursday, June 18, Princeton’s Recreation Commission will vote on if, and when, CP pool will open. “We will make a decision, and if the decision is to open, it will be open July 15 or possibly earlier,” Stentz said.

While Stentz and Princeton Council members have been fielding emails from people begging to get into the water, others have expressed concerns. “I’ve gotten lots of calls saying ‘I hope you’re not going to open because it’s not safe,’” he said. “And I don’t know the answer.”

Had the June 10 ruling come earlier, the issue of opening the pool might have been easier.“ There are so many challenges,” said Stentz. “We had hoped and believed we were going to have those guidelines before Memorial Day, but we got them really late. They were issued June 10 and said we could possibly open June 22, but that really put some unrealistic thoughts into people’s heads.”

Among the requirements to make the pool safe for opening are keeping a digital log of every person who comes through the gate in case there needs to be contact tracing. That means people won’t be able to pay the daily admission rate, as in the past. “If the Recreation Commission decides to go forward, every single person is going to have to have a pool ID card,” said Stentz. “That is a major change. In a normal year, thousands of people use the daily admission model.”

Attendance at the pool can only be 50 percent of the normal maximum. “On the surface, the idea of limiting capacity may seem simple, but to do so in a manner that is both equitable to all Princeton residents and financially sound for the department is no small feat,” Stentz wrote in a recent communication to patrons. “The sheer number of layers to this decision alone are staggering as we must completely rethink our entire membership system.”

Training for lifeguards and custodians would have to include a new layer of COVID-19-related plans. Then there is social distancing, in and out of the water. “Keeping kids six feet apart in the water is absolutely counter-intuitive to normal behavior,” said Stentz. “We’ll put up signs and make announcements, but how well can we enforce that? We can’t. We’ll just do our best to spread the word, if we open.”

The state of New Jersey is recommending hiring additional staff, referred to as “ambassadors,” to enforce social distancing. “What I think would happen is during our busiest times, we would have additional staff roaming the facility trying to spread the word,” Stentz said. “How well that would go, I don’t know. But we would certainly try.”

There are pools across the state that are not opening, despite Gov. Murphy’s ruling. “Others are like us, trying to make a wise decision,” Stentz said. “I don’t want to speculate on what the Recreation Commission will do. But it was the Recreation Commission that led the charge to renovate the pool in 2011. Nobody wants the pool open more than us. I just want to make sure we can do it safely.”

The Zoom meeting of the Recreation Commission, which is Thursday, June 18 at 7 p.m., is open to all and will allow for public comment. “As much as I appreciate all the feedback, this decision is based on the health, safety, and welfare of our staff and community,” said Stentz. “I am a risk manager, and that’s what moves my meter.”