This is the scene in cities across the nation: Chicago, Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Cleveland — and now, D.C. A long, hot summer already wrecked by the pandemic became, somehow, even hotter and longer with no outdoor pools to cool off city kids.
In D.C., the kids endured a sweltering July with the hope that “the government might let us swim” in August, Ellington said.
But those hopes dried up Wednesday, when D.C. government officials announced their decision: Pools will stay closed over concerns about the coronavirus.
“Out of an abundance of caution, and in consultation with the District’s public health experts, we have decided to prioritize the health and safety of residents,” D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Delano Hunter said in a statement announcing the closure of outdoor pools, indoor pools and even the spray parks that are an oasis in the concrete swelter of a city summer.
Which sounds a little bonkers when you look at all the other things opening up in D.C. — libraries, restaurants, recreation centers. Yet outdoor swimming pools — essentially giant vats of chlorinated disinfectant — will stay closed until 2021.
And it’s especially weird when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pools — when accompanied by social distancing and the use of masks while on the decks — are safe.
“There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of recreational waters,” the CDC announced last month, urging folks to jump right in, the water’s fine.
In neighboring Montgomery County and in most of Northern Virginia, public pools are open, some using online reservation systems to limit entry.
Swim clubs and community pools are also largely open — if you’re lucky enough to have access to that.
The high dive and mushroom fountain in the kid pool are a joy for members of the Cheverly Swim and Racquet Club in neighboring Prince George’s County. My kids spent a chunk of their childhoods there as guests of friends who shelled out the $925 buy-in cost and $625 annual memberships for the place.
But many of D.C.’s nearly 127,000 city kids can’t afford a private pool like that, or a beach house rental to get a break from the summer heat.
The District’s pools are one of the highlights of city living, from the triathlon crowd doing laps at East Potomac to the fun, flirting and music at Banneker Pool. The city’s pools are popular, getting about 700,000 swimmers a year. Their closure is yet another ritual killed by the pandemic, a closure especially painful during a scorcher of a record-breaking summer.
Pools have long been essential parts of city life. Cities in long-ago Victorian America recognized the importance of public pools as both bathhouses and respites for the working classes.
Philadelphia was the nation’s swimmiest city when the democratization of pools started, with nine pools built in the 1880s that hosted about 1,500 swimmers a day during the summer months, according to historian Jeff Wiltse in his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
Public pools made the smell of chlorine and the art of lounging an American summer tradition, but they also hosted waves of social upheaval.
D.C.’s first race riot happened in June 1949 at the Anacostia Pool, when the Interior Department called for the desegregation of public pools and the crowd of White swimmers attacked the six Black boys who tried to swim once it became their legal right.
Anacostia Pool has a diverse and vibrant crowd today — when it’s open.
But closing all the pools does have an upside — for the bean counters.
And covid-19 is just the excuse that some cities are using to make those hard-to-find cuts during a pandemic.
New York City started out announcing that this was exactly what they were doing with the budget in April. City officials announced that the closing of the city’s 53 outdoor pools for the first summer in nearly 80 years would save $12 million.
But after a punishing heat wave and city kids growing restless and unwell in lockdown, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city council found $10 million to open 15 of the city’s outdoor pools in June, according to the New York Post.
Philadelphia also closed its pools, but opened all the spray parks, offering some way for city kids to cool off.
No such luck in D.C.
Aaron Rose, Ellington’s 6-year-old brother and the family king of the diving flip, is heartbroken over a waterless summer of 2020.
“I can’t do my backflips here,” he said, standing in the playground, spreading his arms from the hot slide to the scorching swings. “I miss the water.”
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