City council delays pool opening
Mayor breaks tie to keep pool closed for now, set for review on June 22
The city of Medford is taking a wait and see approach on opening up the City Pool The pool was scheduled to open for the season on June 10 with limitations for access, elimination of seating and closure of the locker rooms. The proposed restrictions were part of efforts to balance the desire to provide safe recreational outlets for residents against the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
At Monday’s city council meeting, Wendy Berglund, a parent of a lifeguard, said that not enough was being done to look out for the safety of residents and of those hired to work as lifeguards and attendants. Berglund said the city had “an absolute responsibility” to look out for their safety. She said the city has not reached out to any of the lifeguards or their families to address safety concerns such as sanitation procedures, access to personal protection equipment or even how they are expected to enforce social distancing on the pool deck while also looking out for the safety of those in the pool.
“There are no sides,” Berglund said, explaining that she was concerned about the city setting these young employees in a situation where they will not be able to succeed.
Berglund said the city has not provided the pool staff with adequate information.
“There needs to be a plan that is shared so that city employees can make an informed decision. Anything less is totally unacceptable,” Berglund said.
Mayor Mike Wellner, who last week championed opening the pool with conditions, backtracked this week and said that he was withdrawing that recommendation. One of the pieces of information to come forward was guidance from the state Department of Health Services (DHS), which “highly recommended” not opening public pools, citing concerns over possible transmission. One of the challenges of containing COVID-19 is the long incubation period where a person may be contagious without showing symptoms.
Health officials have advocated for reducing the size of gatherings as well as social distancing of at least six feet between people. Wellner said it is unrealistic to expect kids in the pool to follow that social distancing guideline.
Wellner was joined in opposing the June 10 opening of the pool by alderman Tim Hansen who serves as chairman of the county board’s health committee. He said that with the new DHS guidance that came out late last week, he cannot vote for opening and instead said they should postpone the opening until after the 4th of July.
Wellner said a challenge has been how the direction has changed. “You don’t know what happens from day to day,” he said, noting that prior to getting the DHS guidance he thought it would be safe to open, but does not feel that way any longer.
Alderman Mike Bub disagreed with changing the date, saying the conditions the council had recommended last week were adequate.
“When we started this we were told to flatten the curve,” he said, noting that was done. Now, however, he said health officials keep moving the goal posts. Bub warned that people were at mental health risk for not having things to do. He noted that if a problem arose at the pool with people not following the rules, the city could easily shut it down.
“We have to put this in perspective,” said alderman Dave Roiger. He blamed the media for exaggerating the risk of COVID-19. “The press will tell you that if you get coronavirus you are going to die, which is not the case,” he said, noting that while people die from it, there are also people who die from the seasonal flu or who could die from salmonella from tainted food. “We need to start living our lives,” Roiger said.
Alderman Greg Knight countered with a community transmission case being reported last week in the county and that an updated survey of public pools around the state showed a growing number choosing to not open or delay opening. He said the ones that are opening are doing so with much stricter rules in place. He cautioned that if the city went against the DHS guidance it would be opening itself for risk and “turning a blind eye to the virus and the health of our community.”
Knight also raised concern about if a case was traced to the pool, it would require the quarantine of numerous people. “If we are opening the pool we are saying it is safe,” Knight said, noting there was real risk.
City coordinator John Fales supported delaying the opening, noting that there are two to three public works employees who work with the pool every day and that a quarantine or someone getting sick from it would essentially wipe out that department.
Alderman Clem Johnson said the city has a risk when it comes to delaying opening because the student workers will likely find other jobs before then. “If they aren’t working, they aren’t getting paid,” Johnson said.
Fales said there was the possibilbility of bringing two of the employees in as temporary staff in city hall, while Wellner floated the idea of paying the pool staff even if the pool remains closed.
Johnson also raised concerns about if young people will find alternative places to swim, such as in the Millpond or at area lakes, none of which have lifeguards at them. Wellner said the city’s concern is city residents. “I know that is not our concern, but the children are,” he said.
Aldermen went back and forth on motions and amendments to open with 75 occupants rather than the 150 proposed last week or the normal 300. That amendment resulted in a 4-4 tie with Wellner casting the tiebreaker against it saying he did not feel it was safe to open at that level. An amendment to officially give the head lifeguard the authority to close the pool if people were not following the COVID-19 rules was unanimously passed. This is keeping with past practice where the lifeguards have the authority to clear the pool and shut down in the case of excessive rule violations.
On the final vote, the council was again split 4-4 with Christine Weix, Hansen, Johnson and Knight opposed to opening on June 10 with the restrictions and Roiger, Bub, Dave Brandner and Laura Holmes in favor. Wellner once again cast a tie-breaking vote against opening.
Council members then voted to bring the pool opening back for a decision at a special council meeting scheduled for June 22. This will give the city time to decide if the pool should be opened by July 1. “And we will have the same arguments again,” Johnson said.
In other business, aldermen:
_ Approved a recommendation to proceed with plans to hold the fireworks show on Friday, July 3 with a “higher” show that will be more visible from around the city. As part of the motion, the city will allow J& J Enterprises, which runs the concession stand at the city pool to open the evening of the fireworks if they choose to. All other 4th of July activities in the park are canceled.
_ Approved plans for the city to share in the construction of a new garage storage building by the baseball field. According to Fales, a change from last week’s meeting is that the city crew will provide about $2,500 worth of labor to pour the foundation of the building and that the cash contribution from the city will be reduced to $7,000. “I like that even better,” Bub said of the reduced payment.
_ Received a formal retirement letter from city clerk Virginia Brost. She intends to retire at the end of 2020.