MOUNT VERNON – The City of Mount Vernon announced last week that it intends to reopen Hiawatha Water Park in May, after closing it last summer due to pandemic-related health and safety concerns.
Knox Public Health was involved in this decision, Deputy Health Commissioner Zach Green said Friday, and supports the city's plan for reopening.
"KPH agrees (with) and supports the city's decision to move forward with the opening of the water park," Green said in an email. "The current plan clearly outlines realistic safety measures that can be enforced, including proper social distancing, by managing the amount of visitors at one time. In addition, disinfectant protocols and compliance officers are clearly identified in the submitted plan."
The city published its two-page reopening plan on Facebook last Tuesday, detailing protocols aimed at ensuring health and safety amid the pandemic. The plan covers topics such as occupancy limits; signage; social distancing; disinfection; staffing; concessions and traffic flow.
City Recreation Director Jerry Clinger will review the reopening plan during a committee meeting before Monday's legislative City Council session. Mayor Matt Starr and Safety-Service Director Richard Dzik will be on-hand to answer questions (click here to attend the meeting, which will be held virtually at 5:40 p.m., via Zoom).
Green said the health department was actively involved in the city's decision to reopen the water park. Following a series of email discussions, KPH and city officials met virtually on Feb. 22 to review the city's proposed plan.
"Mr. Dzik and his team drafted a well-written plan that is in-line with the current state guidance," Green said. "Furthermore, a walk-thru with KPH and city officials will occur in effort to finalize any additional safety precautions prior to the water park opening."
Here are some of the key tenets of the city's proposed reopening plan, as it stands now:
The city will enforce an occupancy limit of 525 people at Hiawatha Water Park (based on square footage of the water park). Employees will monitor the entrance and exit to the park to maintain this number.
"Water park management will establish the best process to maintain the 525 maximum occupancy during busy times," the city's plan states.
"This will likely involve admitting the first 425 visitors, regardless of whether they are season pass holders or cash customers, and reserving some occupancy for season pass holders who may arrive throughout the day. This plan for admittance will evolve throughout the summer based on the pool staff’s experience."
The city came to this number by considering the square footage of the pool and the water park as a whole.
The combined surface area of the pool is 15,278 square feet, according to the city. Allocating 36 square feet per occupant would provide every occupant in the water six feet of distance from any other occupant. This meant the city could set the occupancy for people in the water at 425 people (15,278/36).
But the city estimates that between 25 and 30 percent of water park visitors are parents or other adults who spend most of their time on land, or limit their pool time to adult swim periods. Therefore, the city believes the water park can support an additional 100 guests while maintaining necessary social distancing and other precautions.
"The land area outside of the pool (50,000 square feet) is more than sufficient to accommodate these additional 100 guests as well as the 425 guests that could be in or out of the pool at any given time," the city's plan states. "Therefore, the city intends to set water park occupancy at 525 persons for the 2021 pool season."
Signage and social distancing
Signage will be installed throughout the park at entrances, along the fences and in other high-traffic areas reminding guests to maintain six feet of distance from other guests.
Stickers and decals will be installed six feet apart at the entrance area, concession stand, and water slides to illustrate to guests waiting in those areas where to stand to maintain proper distance. Proper hand-washing signage will be installed inside restrooms.
All lifeguards and other staff will be trained to monitor the park for proper social distancing and will direct guests and/or their families when they need to relocate to ensure guidelines are followed.
"Per the Ohio Department of Health guidance, no more than six people (household members preferred) may be seated together in a group," the city's plan states. "Pool staff will enforce these group limits along with ensuring the proper distancing between groups is maintained."
Disinfection and staffing
At any given time there are 13-15 lifeguards, three maintenance workers and two management staff members at the water park, in addition to cashiers and concession workers, which will allow for adherence to both disinfection procedures and monitoring for proper social distancing.
While the following breakdown of responsibilities is the norm, staff members will work together throughout the season to ensure compliance. The following roles are established for each classification:
- Lifeguards will monitor for social distancing guidelines throughout the park when it does not interfere with their lifeguarding responsibilities
- Maintenance workers will ensure restrooms and other high touch areas are disinfected every two hours.
- Cashiers and concession workers will ensure concession and entry/exit areas are disinfected regularly. They will also stock hand sanitizer in their locations and ensure the occupancy limit is maintained.
- Management staff will generally oversee COVID-19 compliance and fill in for monitoring, occupancy or cleaning as necessary.
The city intends to remove most, if not all, furniture from the water park to reduce the potential for disease transmission. Park guests will be informed that they are responsible to bring their own seating for their visit.
"The city may retain a small number of picnic tables for guests to use when eating," its plan states. "These tables will be restricted to active eating only and will be disinfected regularly by concession or maintenance staff."
Concessions and traffic flow
Some changes to normal concession procedure will be implemented for the 2021 season.
First, the concession stand will operate two lines where customers will both order and receive their food. In prior seasons, customers would order then move to a separate window to receive their food.
"It is the city’s belief that by operating two full-service windows we can queue customers in a more organized, and socially distanced, fashion and ensure each customer limits their exposure to only one part of the concession area," the plan states.
Concession workers will be required to wear masks for the entirety of their shift, will wipe down their areas between customers and will limit condiments to individual packets or condiments added to food by concession workers during the food prep process (i.e. cheese for nachos). Workers will ensure that hand sanitizer is stocked at the concession stands at all times.
Other water park staff who come in close contact with guests (i.e. staff at entrance and exits, maintenance workers) will be required to wear masks throughout their shift. Lifeguards, in general, will be exempt from wearing a mask while on duty (outdoors) and when social distancing can be maintained.
"As a general rule, if staff is outdoors and is able to maintain six feet of social distance, a mask will not be required. When inside water park facilities (i.e. restrooms, locker rooms, offices), masks should be worn," the plan states, "unless someone is working in an office alone."
The city intends to offer a full pool season this summer, opening Hiawatha Water Park on May 29 and closing Aug. 18. The summer program has been canceled "due to complexities and increased staffing necessary for operating a day camp," the city's plan states.
"Unfortunately, COVID guidelines for day camps make it impossible for the city to meet the staffing requirements and other precautions to operate this program," the plan continues. "We hope to see this program return in 2022, when restrictions are lifted."
While the city plans to implement myriad protocols in an effort to ensure the health and safety of its water park guests, its reopening plan also makes clear that patrons will attend this summer "at their own risk."
"The city will do everything in its power to ensure guests have a clean, safe environment in which to have fun at the water park," the plan states. "That being said, no precaution is 100-percent effective and guests visit the water park at their own risk.
"If you are at high risk due to COVID-19 or concerned about virus transmission, we encourage you to consider other recreational opportunities this summer."
The city announced April 13 that Hiawatha Water Park would be closed for the 2020 season. Starr and other local officials cited health and safety concerns, as well as financial and logistical obstacles, in the decision.
“This has been a difficult decision,” Starr said in a press release at the time. “But, we took a holistic approach to determining what was best for the community based on information we have now and could expect this summer. It’s not perfect information, but it did drive our business decision.”
When this decision was made last spring, Knox County had seen just 10 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. COVD-19 had been declared a global pandemic less than a month earlier.
Nearly a year later, more than 4,000 county residents have tested positive for the virus, hundreds have been hospitalized by it, and 81 have died from it, according to Knox Public Health. But numbers have declined sharply in the last two months, as the wintertime surge has subsided and more residents have been able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
As of Thursday, there were 64 active cases and three COVID-related hospitalizations in Knox County, according to KPH. Roughly 15 percent the county has received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the Ohio Department of Health.