New York City has cleared all indoor pools to reopen for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic shut down indoor athletic facilities in March, another sign that the city is inching its way back to normalcy, albeit one that is still very restricted.
In an announcement on Friday morning, the mayor's office said that indoor pools can reopen on September 30th, but only at 33% of capacity.
"Swimming pools are a community anchor, an exercise center, and an oasis in their neighborhoods—both literally and figuratively," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "New Yorkers have worked hard to fight back COVID-19. As transmission rates remain low, we’re proud to offer more ways to slowly return to business as usual.”
The policy, however, will not apply to the city's 12 indoor pools. NYC Recreation Centers, in which the pools are housed, have been used as testing and food distribution sites. The city is also planning to use many of the facilities to provide free childcare for certain children in the city's blended learning program on days when they are assigned remote instruction.
On Friday, a spokesperson for the Parks Department confirmed that the recreation centers—and indoor pools—would remain closed.
Indoor pools across the rest of the state have been open since June, when Governor Andrew Cuomo said all pools could resume operation under safety and social distancing guidelines. Roosevelt Island is home to an indoor pool run by the state and has been operating since August 10th. According to the facility's website, admittance has been free until the fall. The pool is open at 30% capacity, which translates into 38 people at a time. Access to the pool is on a first come first serve basis.
But de Blasio held back the opening of other public and private pools in New York City due to the administration's cautious approach to reopening, and in the case of city pools, budget constraints. The mayor's office eventually decided to reopen 15 outdoor public pools beginning in August.
Gyms were allowed to open in New York City in early September, but pools in gyms remain closed at the time.
Maggy Siegel, the executive director of Asphalt Green, a recreational center with facilities on the Upper East Side and Battery Park City, said city council and state legislators had lobbied City Hall on behalf of indoor pool operators.
She said her members had been asking about the pool incessantly.
"You should see the emails we have," she said. "Nobody understood why the indoor pool couldn't open sooner."
Among health experts the consensus is that outdoor activities are much safer than indoors. But pools have the benefit of chlorine and bromine which inactivate the virus.
"You're swimming in a sea of disinfectant. I think it’s the safest place on earth," Siegel said.
In June, Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health told the New York Times, “There probably is a theoretical possibility you could get infected by coronavirus from the pool water itself, but it’s so negligible it’s probably effectively zero."
The greater danger lies from being around people who may have the virus.
Asphalt Green will open its indoor pools on October 1st. Under the new health guidelines, swimmers will not be allowed to shower inside the locker room, although they can still change and use the restrooms. Saunas will remain closed.
Masks are required except when inside the pool. Swimmers must also make a reservation first. Slots are 50 minutes each, with 10 minutes in between for cleaners to wipe down surfaces.
Asphalt Green is home to an Olympic-sized indoor pool. Before the pandemic, swimmers would line up in the morning as early as 5:30 a.m. to perform their morning laps before heading off to work.
The center also gives swimming lessons for about 500 children each month.
"This is so important to so many people," Siegel said. "There’s going to be a real lag now in getting these kids to swim."