Johnson County pools prepare for second COVID-19 summer, struggle to find staff

After being unable to fully open the majority of pools, Johnson County aquatics facilities are preparing to reopen this summer with extra safety precautions. However, the cities are struggling to staff its various pools.


Jeff Sigmund

The indoor pool at Mercer Park Aquatic Center on Monday, April 12, 2021. The center is located at 2701 Bradford Dr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt, News Reporter

As Johnson County pools prepare to open their doors for the second summer of COVID-19, lead staffers are struggling to find lifeguards.

City of Coralville Aquatics Supervisor Faron VanNostrand said while it’s difficult to find lifeguards every summer to work at the pools, the pandemic added a new wave of challenges last summer and this upcoming summer in Iowa.

“Last year, it was challenging to find lifeguards because we started our season so late,” he said. “This year, we’re struggling a lot to find lifeguards, as is the state and the entire country. When you take a year off and no lifeguarding classes are offered, it’s difficult to rebuild the workforce.”

Classes for lifeguard certifications have been offered in Johnson County, he said, but some of the classes weren’t taught because of a lack of interest and few sign-ups.

Coralville pools opened in June 2020 with a capacity of 250, compared to its normal 700, VanNostrand said. City pools in Iowa City and North Liberty, however, remained mostly closed during summer 2020.

Iowa City Recreation Superintendent Brad Barker wrote in an email to The Daily Iowan that Iowa City will transition from pre-reservation time blocks to a drop-in format at the Mercer Park Aquatic Center starting on May 3.

The city is looking forward to open pools, splash pads, and other parks and recreation centers, Barker wrote, and it is currently working to ensure its future employees will be safe.

“Most aquatic staff interviews are being conducted virtually at this time and extra precautions have been taken in regard to the size and format of our certification courses and onboarding procedures,” Barker wrote. “Since reopening, we have had success in modifying in-services, shifts, and uniforms to include the use of masks and face shields.”

North Liberty’s outdoor pools remained closed last summer, North Liberty Recreation Director Shelly Simpson said. The city looked to reserving pool times and shifting workers’ schedules as ways to accommodate for COVID-19.

Simpson said North Liberty is now looking to staff its pools to help the community return to enjoying the warmer weather starting in June.

“Last summer we cut down on part time staff and had strictly full-time staff for our indoor facility,” she said. “…We are currently working on our staffing now to have both of our pools up and running during the week and weekends and ensuring our staff still stay safe as will our community.”

RELATED: Iowa City pool closures lead to increased visitation at Lake Macbride and other alternative swimming sites

She said North Liberty is gradually getting staff vaccinated as the city prepares to open its pools. The main concern for Simpson, she said, is younger patrons being unvaccinated since only people 16 and older can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The North Liberty pools are asking patrons to be patient and respect the rules of each facility and its staff because it has been a challenge to prepare the pools to open in a pandemic, Simpson said.

“The pools attract youngsters, patrons who are under 16 cannot get vaccinations,” she said. “We don’t want to become the facility that spreads the virus, so we are stressing to the public that that is a concern and that we have to follow various safety protocols to try and eliminate the pandemic.”

VanNostrand said Coralville’s community members are excited to get back outside and enjoy the public pools. The pools will remind patrons to socially distance and be mindful of others, he said, as they prepare for a more normal summer than last year’s.

“We’re opening up this summer because people missed it and because we need some type of recreation available for kids and families,” he said. “It’s important to be open after the pandemic shut everything down…We’re doing the best we can right now to get the pools back to normal, or as normal as possible.”