As Pennsylvania and New Jersey increasingly allow businesses to reopen, private swim clubs are providing families with a sliver of summertime normality after months of being cooped up at home.
At sprawling St. Albans, a 440-member club that sits atop a hill near the edge of Delaware County, the doors opened when Pennsylvania entered the yellow stage in early June. President Josh Kohn said most of this season’s 60 new memberships have come since then.
“There’s a lot less going on than there are traditionally in most summers,” he said, “and there’s other situations where people aren’t comfortable or can’t afford to go on vacation this summer.”
While the pandemic has already left lasting impacts on the economy, leading some restaurants and shops to close for good, some of the region’s swim clubs may be primed to take less of a financial hit than other businesses.
The summertime staples operate mostly outdoors, where the risk of spreading the coronavirus is generally lower than in indoor spaces. As a result, people may feel more comfortable returning to their swim club than to their gym.
A risk still exists in outdoor gathering spaces, however, so lifeguards are scrubbing and sanitizing pool ladders and other high-touch areas. Managers are making sure pools don’t get overcrowded; groups stay six feet apart; and members follow masking rules when not in the water.
Most pools are open only to members, which means clubs aren’t making money off guest fees. With capacity limits, club presidents said they wouldn’t want to have to turn away members when guests are in the pool. Plus, if someone tests positive for the coronavirus after being at the club, staff can easily contact members who may have interacted with that person, but guests are harder to track down.
For some swim clubs, all this extra work wasn’t worth the risk.
In Downingtown, Chester County, Pennypacker Country Club decided not to open its pools and tennis courts after a majority of members said they wouldn’t return due to the virus.
“After 56 years of hearing laughter and seeing the joy our facility brings to our PCC families, we are heartbroken to have to make this decision,” the club wrote in a Facebook post. “However, we need to do what is best for our business and our members so we can return strong again in 2021.”
In Philadelphia, public pools aren’t allowed to reopen, but private pools can.
The only problem? They don’t have the space for social distancing.
Gray Laub, president of the University City Swim Club, said the pool’s board decided it wouldn’t make financial sense to reopen this summer, given they’d have to operate at reduced capacity.
“If we were spread out and we could have more people, it might’ve been different for us,” Laub said. “There are concrete walls around our pool we can’t move.”
St. Albans’ biggest assets right now, Kohn said, are ample space and members who are respectful of the rules.
On the pool deck, markers show families how to space out their chairs, which they must bring from home this year. Employees are masked, except lifeguards sitting on their elevated stands, and members have to wear them, when they’re entering, exiting, buying food at the snack bar, or using the restrooms.
In all, the pool has spent about $5,000 on coronavirus-related safety measures, Kohn said.
“Truthfully, our financial position is the best it’s been in years,” he said.
Back in March, as the region was shutting down, Kohn said, he didn’t foresee opening at all in 2020. The financial loss, he said, would’ve been “catastrophic.”
Throughout the shutdown, Kohn was one of about 30 suburban swim club presidents who joined in regular Zoom calls to discuss possibilities for safely reopening at some point. The group closely followed updates from the CDC and state, he said, and will continue to abide by the evolving guidance.
Charlie Vanderslice, president of Rose Tree Woods Swim Club in Broomall, said the calls helped clubs prepare.
Along with regular sanitation and social distancing protocols, Rose Tree Woods also implemented a Senior Hour each morning for older people and others at higher risk of coronavirus complications, Vanderslice said.
Employees are also screened before every shift, he said, and sent home if they report any symptoms consistent with the virus.
Jim Leitz, president of Aronimink Swim Club in Drexel Hill, said his pool has decided to start with strict rules and then slowly ease them, if cases don’t rise.
“We sort of opened up Aronimink as a tight-wound ball,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to restrict heavy and then give things back to people.”
Aronimink has 967 member families, more than 50 of which have taken a “bye year,” allowing them to freeze their membership and pay a reduced price, Leitz said. Usually, fewer than 10 families per summer use that option.
As for the people who were first in line to return, Leitz said he wanted to ensure they were serious about keeping others safe.
Pool manager Matt Stewart broke up the large pool into several zones, and a staffer uses a flag to mark zones that are too crowded. The hope is people will police themselves and avoid those zones, Leitz said, but if not, the staff will tell swimmers in the area they should spread out more.
Between 3 and 4 p.m. every day, they close the facility for crowd control and a deep cleaning, Leitz said.