New Paltz pushes to open Moriello Pool

Bill Russell and Tom Plitsch overseeing operations at Moriello Pool last summer. (Photo by Lauren Thomas)

With both temperatures and tensions rising as we enter into the third month of a public-health crisis, residents are looking toward summer relief. Local municipal pools have been a safe, healthy outlet to beat the heat, and a source of fresh air and exercise. Many families have also depended on their town’s summer camp programs and pools as places that their children can utilize to stay active and engaged in a supervised manner.

On May 20, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released guidelines for how pools could reopen (www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/parks-rec/aquatic-venues.html). These are not dissimilar to most CDC outdoor recreational guidelines, cautioning visitors to observe social-distancing protocols, practice good hygiene, and stay home if they feel sick. Water-specific recommendations include reminding people not to wear masks in the pool, share goggles, water bottles or other equipment. Lifeguards should be focused on the pool and not be asked to enforce social distancing when they’re guarding patrons in the water.

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New Paltz appears to be swimming upstream when it comes to trying to allow for safe pool usage. County executive Pat Ryan is very cautious. “We [county officials] talk every day with town supervisors and municipal leaders, and these issues have come up,” he said. “Our youth bureau does help support local camps financially to some degree. Our health department is coordinating with local municipalities about their pools. But right now, we’ve been told by New York State that we can’t have more than ten people at a pool.”

The coronavirus is not spread through water. Despite this, several area pools have already put a “closed” sign on their doors, including the Rosendale Pool and the Ulster County Pool.

Locals want pool open

“It’s my goal to open the Moriello Pool,” said New Paltz town supervisor Neil Bettez, who has long been an advocate of outdoor recreation, open space, land conservation and the municipal pool. “Ultimately, it’s the county who gets to decide whether or not we open. We have to get permits from them to open the pool, and the same for our summer camps.”

While he continues to raise the issue with Ulster County officials, Bettez has been working closely with veteran pool director Bill Russell, town recreation director Chuck Bordino, and the other members of the town board. “People love the Moriello Pool. It’s been an integral part of people’s lives for a long time, and if we can open it safely, then that’s what we need to do,” said Bettez. “This [health crisis] is going to be with us for a while, so we need to find creative, healthy ways to try and give people safe outlets. Right now, the numbers are down; the outdoors have not been a place of contagion; water actually dilutes the virus; and we have chlorine. Yes, we’ll have to follow social-distancing protocols, and it might not look the same as it did last year, but we have to do what we can. Kids need a place to cool off, adults need to lap swim, parents need a place their kids can go safely.”

Bettez felt that same way about keeping River-2-Ridge and other local trails open for the public, despite pushback. “I’ve had so many people tell me that the River-2-Ridge has literally kept them sane and saved them during this time,” he said. “We want to try and give them a little bit of summer. And if they’re not comfortable coming to the pool, they do not have to.”

Bill Russell concurs. “I’ve read the CDC guidelines and the Red Cross guidelines, and we can do this. We are doing all of the maintenance we need to do, and took the cover off a few days ago so that we’re ready if we get to Phase Four” – scheduled for July 7, if all keeps moving on track – “and are allowed to open. There is maintenance that needs to happen, whether or not we open.”

According to Russell, the longtime director, each year the pool sees approximately 30,000 visitors and last year had 300 family memberships and more than 150 individual memberships. It’s also home to the summer recreation swim team, the New Paltz Sea Hawks, a masters’ swim session in the morning, aqua aerobics, lifeguard and CPR certification and water safety training courses.

Hygiene is a priority

Bettez and Russell have been working closely and brainstorming on ways that they could adjust to social-distancing restrictions and how that might look. “We may have to open earlier, so that we can spread people out throughout the day,” said Bettez. “We may stay open past Labor Day if kids aren’t going back to school. If the county pool does not open, that will place a real burden on us, and we may have to limit the pool to residents only. We may have to reconfigure the entrance/exit.”

Do we need to have someone wipe down railings throughout the day? Do we need to limit the number of people who utilize the bathroom? These are questions the staff is working on and are trying to anticipate, said Russell. Pool hygiene is always a priority for him, with guards scrubbing down toilets and garbage cans and pool decks when they’re not actively watching the pool.

New Paltz police chief Rob Lucchesi is an advocate of opening the pool up. “I’m concerned about what this is going to look like when we’re in July, and it’s 100 degrees and people have nowhere to go,” he said. “What is that going to be like for families who rely on the pools and camps for their children to be supervised and safe when they go to work? This is a real concern for me. Kids are going to go somewhere, and I’d rather they be somewhere that is safe and supervised and outdoors. People are under a lot of stress right now, and we’ve got to provide them with outlets.”

Ryan said that he was hopeful that those numbers would “loosen” as it gets closer to summer. The county made the decision two months ago to keep the Ulster County Pool closed for the summer, he said. “It was a hard decision to make then, it’s even harder right now,” he said. “We consulted with the legislature and made the decision based on public health.”

The county looks to the state health department for advice, Ryan said. “We take our guidance from them.”