Keeping Lawrence outdoor pools and rec centers closed ‘first of many difficult decisions,’ leaders say
photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo
Updated at 12:54 p.m. Tuesday, May 26
As businesses across the city begin to open their doors, the City of Lawrence recreation centers and outdoor pools will remain closed to public. Those facilities are allowed to open with restrictions under state health guidelines, but as city leaders keep a wary eye on the budget, the calculus of when to reopen is more complicated.
The city has released a reopening plan for the Parks and Recreation Department, and the plan calls for the city’s outdoor pool and wading pools to remain closed all summer. Recreation centers will also remain closed to the general public until all health orders and restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic lift. Parks and rec officials say those decisions were based in part on direction from elected leaders.
In a recent discussion about budget decisions facing the city as a result of decreasing revenue projections, Lawrence city commissioners said they generally favored budget cuts, including service reductions, over increases in property taxes or service fees. Though Mayor Jennifer Ananda acknowledged that not opening the outdoor pools and recreation centers was not an easy choice, she said that city staff’s decision was consistent with the direction of the commission and that she supported it.
“We all know that there are no easy answers, that any decision that we make is going to have an impact on our residents,” Ananda said. “In some instances we are stuck choosing the least worst options.”
Budget, health and logistical considerations
Community pools are allowed to open under phase three of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s reopening plan, which currently is scheduled to begin no earlier than June 8. Community centers were allowed to open when phase two began on Friday, but social distancing requirements, calling for people to maintain a six-foot distance, and current gathering limits of 15 people must be followed. Until the fourth and final phase of Kelly’s plan begins and gathering restrictions lift — currently scheduled to occur June 22 — pools and community centers have to follow mass gathering limits of 45 people should they decide to open.
The city’s phased reopening plan for the parks and rec department calls for the Outdoor Aquatic Center, 727 Kentucky St., and the South Park wading pool to remain closed this summer. The city’s Indoor Aquatic Center, 4706 Overland Drive, will partially open on June 8, when lap swimming and water fitness classes resume. The Indoor Aquatic Center’s wading pool and water slide area will remain closed until social-distancing and gathering restrictions are phased out, which will occur no earlier than June 29 under the city’s plan.
The city’s four recreation centers and the Prairie Park Nature Center, which are free to enter, will remain closed to the general public until social-distancing and gathering restrictions are phased out, according to the plan. However, the recreation centers will reopen for fitness classes on June 15, which is during phase three.
Parks and Recreation Director Derek Rogers said the health and safety of patrons and city staff is the city’s highest priority, but that budget considerations and logistical factors associated with social distancing and gathering limits also affected the city’s decision keep the outdoor pools and recreation centers closed to the general public this summer.
Rogers said that like many businesses and municipalities across the country, the coronavirus has had a major financial impact on budgets and revenues in Lawrence.
“The budget shortfall is impacting not only our department but the whole city and we’re trying to do everything we can to squeeze our belt a little tighter and still provide as much service as we can to the community,” Rogers said.
Rogers said that were the city to open the pools and recreation centers sooner, it would be difficult for staff to limit and monitor occupancy, ensure social distancing and regularly disinfect surfaces and equipment. In the case of recreation centers with small cardio and weight rooms, such as the Holcom Park and East Lawrence centers, he said those rooms could only accommodate a few people with social distancing rules in place. When considering gathering limits, Rogers said staff would also have to take into account that the city will be running its Summer Playgrounds youth program — which takes place in parks across the city — and those staff and children need to be able to take shelter in recreation centers in case of inclement weather.
Vice Mayor Brad Finkeldei also said he supported the city’s decision to keep the outdoor pools and recreation centers closed for health, budget and logistical reasons. Finkeldei said the gathering limits, apart from their importance to health, create logistical layers of complexity. For instance, he said if the city opened the pool with limited occupancy, it could create other gathering violations if people line up outside the pool waiting to get in. Finkeldei also noted that even under normal circumstances, the city has had trouble finding enough seasonal lifeguard staff, and hiring would likely be even more difficult if the city were to open the pool for a shorter time period at the end of the summer.
“All of that leads to the funding side of it,” Finkeldei said. “You already sometimes lose money, but now you’re really going to lose money. So I think those things really combine.”
Rogers also said if that if gathering restrictions indeed lift on June 22 and the city were to open the pool later in the summer, it would strain the budget with entrance fees set as they are. Rogers noted that preliminary projections estimate the recreation fund will lose at least $1.7 million in revenue because of the pandemic, and that not opening the outdoor pool would save the city about $200,000 in expenses. Considering the commission’s general direction, Rogers said the solution was to reduce the city’s offerings.
“They weren’t interested in property tax increases,” Rogers said. “Obviously we are not interested in raising fees in tough economic times, so the main piece that we can really go to is reducing service levels.”
Other programming to resume
Though the recreation centers will remain closed to the general public during phase three, they will open for fitness and other paid classes, according to the plan. That includes programming for aquatics, fitness, dance, special populations and lifelong recreation. Rogers said the showers at the outdoor pool will continue to be available for people who are homeless until the recreation centers reopen.
Both adult and youth sports games can take place in phase three, as well as other summer camps and programming for youth. Rogers explained that the Summer Playgrounds program is allowed to open up sooner, as part of phase two, because it qualifies as a licensed childcare program, which is allowed to open under Kelly’s plan. The program, which is currently accepting registrations, is less expensive than some other local childcare options that are locally available for the summer. Rogers said that making the program available, even though its structure must be adjusted in the first week to adhere to gathering limits of 15 people, was a priority of the city.
In addition to those programs, city parks, skate parks, dog parks, playgrounds and trail systems have remained open throughout the pandemic, and Rogers said the city continues to maintain those facilities as usual. Eagle Bend Golf Course has already opened with limited tee time and concessions, and those limitations will remain in place in phase three. The department’s full reopening plan, which consists of four phases, is available on the city’s website, lawrenceks.org.
When it comes to decisions down the road, both Ananda and Finkeldei said that they would not rule out increasing parks and recreation programming fees in the future if revenue increases are necessary to support the department’s operations. Finkeldei said there are a lot of unknowns in that regard, including how willing people are to participate in classes and programs amid the pandemic and whether increasing prices will price some people out.
“There is no perfect answer to that, but I do think it’s something to look at,” Finkeldei said.
Ananda said that the options the city must weigh in making such decisions are complex, and that she was grateful for the thought city staff and directors put into the parks and rec reopening plan. As the city prepares for its upcoming budget discussion, Ananda said she expected more difficult decisions ahead.
“Closing the pool for the summer is not going to fix the budget,” Ananda said. “This is the first of many difficult decisions we have coming our way.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated how long the Indoor Aquatic Center’s wading pool and water slide area would remain closed.