Public Safety

Do public pool closures mean more drowning risk?

Backyard pool use up, city may open fire hydrants to keep residents cool

Beachgoers sunbathe and swim at Lake Macbride Beach in Solon on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Beachgoers sunbathe and swim at Lake Macbride Beach in Solon on Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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With many public swimming pools closed because of COVID-19, how do Eastern Iowans stay cool and safe?

Public health officials worry this summer will bring more drownings as people swim in lakes, rivers or backyard pools — which all lack lifeguards.

Three people drowned this week alone in Eastern Iowa waterways, prompting warnings from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

“We have big concerns about drowning deaths if people can’t go to a pool,” said Dustin Hinrichs, supervisor for environmental quality for Linn County Public Health.

Drowning deaths

Iowa had 25 unintentional drowning deaths in 2018, the most recent year reported by the Iowa Department of Public Health.

Nationwide, more than 1,000 children drowned in 2016, according to a report from Safe Kids Worldwide. Open water drownings made up 43 percent of those childhood drownings, compared with 38 percent in pools, 9 percent in bathtubs and 10 percent unspecified, Safe Kids Worldwide reported.

Boys make up 80 percent of open-water swimming deaths, the report showed.

Open water, which includes lakes, ponds and rivers, is less likely to have lifeguards and more likely to have hidden hazards such as sudden drop-offs, vegetation and murky water that makes it hard to find a person who slips under.

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Makeda Scott, 21, of Iowa City, died Sunday at Lake Macbride. Her body was not found until Monday, despite people seeing her go underwater and emergency personnel searching for several hours Sunday night.

Sharon Kahn, 64, and Vicki K. Hodges, 44, both of West Union, were tubing Monday down the Turkey River when they went over a dam in Clermont and drowned, officials said.

More backyard pools

Concerns over spreading COVID-19 and occupancy limits set by Gov. Kim Reynolds have kept many Eastern Iowa swimming pools from opening to the public this summer.

A solution for some is adding a backyard pool.

The city of Marion, which requires permits for pools over 24 inches deep or more than 5,000 gallons of water, issued 16 pool permits from March 1 through June 5, up from five during the same period in 2019 and 10 in 2018,

“We have had a lot of people call in asking questions about whether they need a permit for a pool and how to get those permits,” said Ama Bartlett, Marion administrative assistant. “I’m betting there will be a lot more applications coming still.”

Cedar Rapids has approved 12 permits since March 1, up slightly from seven in 2019 and 11 in 2018.

In Iowa City and Coralville, permits for in-ground pools have been flat, but Tim Hennes, Iowa City senior building inspector, said he thinks a lot more people are buying aboveground pools from stores like Walmart and Lowe’s.

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James McIntosh, owner of McIntosh Pools in Solon, said its schedule for installing in-ground pools this summer is filling quickly.

“In late February or early March, I wasn’t necessarily seeing the huge lead generation, but then middle and end of March it just kind of exploded,” McIntosh said of the interest.

Dewi and Michael Abramoff, of Iowa City, decided last summer to have an in-ground pool installed in their backyard this year, getting on McIntosh Pools’s schedule well before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are really lucky we decided last fall and they started this spring, because now they (pool installers) are full for this summer,” Dewi Abramoff said. She expects the family will use the saltwater pool every day this summer, especially because so many events and activities have been canceled.

Pool safety

Pools within city limits usually are required to have a fence so children or other unsupervised swimmers don’t fall into the water. Automatic safety pool covers, solid enough for an adult to walk on without falling into the pool, are another way to keep out unsupervised swimmers.

“When they are closed, the pool is covered and locked,” McIntosh said. “In some ways, it’s safer than a fence.”

The state Public Health Department recommends keeping children under age 5 within arm’s reach, using life jackets for young swimmers and not drinking alcohol when swimming or supervising children.

Splash pads

Splash pads at 11 Cedar Rapids parks could open as soon as next week, if Gov. Kim Reynolds’s proclamation closing them until June 17 ends as expected, according to Scott Hock, the city’s parks and recreation director.

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Update:Cedar Rapids splash pads will open on June 17

“At this time we are planning to operate them under the same guidelines as playgrounds,” Hock said in an email. “With signage recommending that people do not use them if they are ill, practice social distancing, and wash their hands or use hand sanitizer after use.”

Officials are looking for other ways for residents to cool off on hot summer days.

The parks and recreation department is working with the Cedar Rapids Fire Department to explore opening fire hydrants as sprayers, Hock said.

This would be done when the city’s Rollin’ Recmobile visits 13 parks, six days a week from June 22 to Aug. 14. The Recmobile will be a van loaded with recreation equipment and games and equipped with a WI-FI hot spot people can use during park visits.

Hinrichs said he is looking into whether there is grant money available to buy hoses and sprinklers Linn County could put out in parks or possibly give residents for their own backyards.

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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