As children run laughing and squealing through the mist at the Oak Hill Park Splash Pad, it looks and sounds almost like any other summer.
But a few things are different. The jets at the St. Louis Park cool-down spot shoot water continuously. The button to control the spray — normally surrounded by kids gleefully jostling to take a turn — is covered.
The water play area isn't as full as normal, because there's a limit on the number of kids and parents who can enter. The large groups of children in matching shirts from day care or camp field trips are missing. And there's a huge bottle of hand sanitizer by the gate.
While many summer activities are off limits due to COVID-19, in the land of lakes water is still a respite. You can make a splash in the Twin Cities, even with capacity limits and social distancing. But access to safe, water-based fun varies around the metro area.
While many municipal pools and water parks sit empty, public lake and river beaches are still providing a cool escape, although without the number of lifeguards that are usually present. Gyms like the YMCA and Life Time have reopened their outdoor pools — with new social distancing and other safety rules — for members to use. And some cities and counties are reopening aquatic facilities with new restrictions to limit the risk of infection and to lower capacity. The Anoka Aquatic Center is BYOC (bring your own chair) and swimmers must prove they are an Anoka resident and secure a season pass.
Experts rank using an outside pool or beach as potentially low risk for COVID-19 (similar to going camping and less risky than getting a haircut or eating indoors at a restaurant). Partly because it's outside in the fresh air and partly because water is not likely to be a source of infection.
Still, the CDC recommends that family groups keep a distance of 6 feet from one another on land and in the water, and use masks on dry land, if social distancing isn't possible. (Individual risk depends on age, health and how prevalent the virus is in your area.)
Often, it's easier to spread out in a lake than a pool — although in either, it can be tough to keep little kids apart. And while comfort levels vary widely, it's likely that you can find water-based fun that fits your level of caution.
Beaches and boats
In the metro area, some beaches and swimming facilities have done little more than post signs cautioning people to maintain their distance. Others have attendants who sanitize equipment and enforce distancing and capacity rules.
Hot pink distancing signs are posted at the Minneapolis lake beaches, but during hot days, many end up more crowded than suggested for safety. And while lifeguards are set to return to the five most popular ones each day starting July 2, the others will remain unguarded, which proves a different but still very serious risk for swimmers — several people in the metro area have drowned in the early weeks of summer at places where no lifeguards were present.
Boat rentals and sailing classes have been restarted in many places, but with masked sailors on land, and increased sanitation. The Minneapolis Sailing Center boathouse on the shore of Bde Maka Ska reopened for classes in June, and groups of the small boats are again moving in unison out on the water.
The lake also offers rental kayaks, paddleboards and other boats at its Wheel Fun Rentals kiosk, where staffers are protected by plexiglass shields. The company (which rents equipment at six other area spots) uses an "eco-friendly solution" to sanitize boats and boards after each use, said site manager Adam Dal Lago.
"Every time a boat comes back, we spray down the high-touch areas — seats, handlebars, the paddles themselves, life jackets. We just give them a good spray through like a fogging machine you would see on a plane," he said.
Splash pads and pools
For parents with very young children, splash pads — with their gated areas and lack of standing water — provide a haven. Many that have reopened across the metro area, like Oak Hill Park, have increased attendants' hours or added staffers in order to ensure capacity and social distancing.
One day last week, Robyn Hanson and her baby Lakaii splashed at Oak Hill Park. They were visiting from Minneapolis, where park wading pools were closed. (The Park Board announced it will open 20 wading pools July 4.) Hanson was relieved to find the St. Louis Park spot open.
"It's good for parents, for sure, to get out of the house," she said.
When Life Time reopened its nine outdoor pools to members of gyms across the Twin Cities area in June, it was with new rules and a new setup.
"We took all of our chairs that are on the pool deck and we spaced them in groups of two, 6 feet apart," said Alicia Kockler, vice president of Life Time Swim. "That's so families could still come and be together, while definitely making sure people are spaced on the pool deck."
A supervisor makes sure social distancing is maintained in and out of the pool so lifeguards can focus on safety. Workers wipe down highly touched surfaces every hour, she said. Indoor pools at the clubs have opened as well, but the outdoor ones are in high demand, Kockler said.
"So many other pools either haven't opened yet, or aren't going to open at all," said Kockler. "As Minnesotans, our summers are so short, we try to relish them. So I think people are taking whatever opportunity they can to get outside."
Petra Birlenbach, who lives in Eden Prairie, has been bringing her kids, ages 5 and 7, four times a week to the Chanhassen Life Time outdoor pool since it reopened.
"People are relaxed. The adults are just making sure the kids are not crawling all over each other," she said. "It feels blessed. It feels amazing to be back for sure."
Erica Pearson • 612-673-4726