Park District’s delay in opening public pools deprives Chicagoans of summer fun

Not everyone lives by a beach, so the delay means one fewer summer activity for residents, especially teenagers, who were cooped up inside the last two summers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The pool at Cornell Square Park in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood among many Chicago Park District pools that remain closed amid this week’s scorching temperatures.

The closed pool at Cornell Square Park in Back of the Yards, photographed on Tuesday, June 15, 2022.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Although summer officially started just this week, the sweltering heat already made its debut days before.

A dip in the swimming pool is de rigueurwhen the mercury rises in Chicago, where we spend most of the year fending off the cold.

But many city residents, including hundreds of bored teenagers, will have to wait a little longer before they can cool off in a Chicago Park District pool.

While lakefront beaches have been opened, the majority of the Park District’s pools — 49 outdoor and 28 indoor facilities — have not yet started operations due to a lifeguard shortage, the Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman and Jordan Perkins recently reported.

Editorial

Editorial

The Park District had initially planned to open its pools by Friday, but now is saying that won’t happen until July 5, after the holiday weekend.

Not everyone lives by a beach, so the delay means one fewer activity for residents who were cooped up inside the last two summers due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For teenagers, the situation is even more grim.

To quell potential summer violence, they have been banned from Millennium Park after 6 p.m. from Thursday through Sunday.

The City Council in May also approved a 10 p.m. curfew for children 17 and younger.

If we want teenagers to stay out of trouble and the city is going to limit the hours during which they can be out and go to public places, it’s imperative to make sure as many recreational options as possible are open.

Kids need more places to be, not fewer.

To be fair, the lifeguard shortage is a nationwide problem. The American Lifeguard Association estimates the shortage affects one-third of U.S. pools, and expects that number to rise to half of all pools nationwide by August, when many teenage lifeguards return to school. Part of the problem is that when pools closed earlier in the pandemic, lifeguard certification stopped, the association says. Plus, starting pay lags behind many other jobs.

Here in Chicago, the problem has been made worse by the lifeguard sex abuse scandal that forced the resignation of Park District Supt. Michael Kelly and Board President Avis LaVelle.

Other top executives were also fired in November for dismissing sexual harassment and abuse complaints.

But it was months before, in June 2021, that WBEZ’s Dan Mihalopoulos first wrote about the frat-house culture and mistreatment of female lifeguards that was tolerated for decades at city pools and beaches.

Once the horrific problem and the blasé attitude toward it were exposed, the Park District had a year to prepare for this summer so that parents would know that pools and beaches were safe for their children. The process of finding suitable applicants for the lifeguard positions and then training them should have started months ago.

The Park District, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, revealed a 91% vacancy rate among seasonal lifeguards and a 73% vacancy rate among “all lifeguard positions district-wide,” Spielman and Perkins reported.

So now the city agency is scrambling, sweetening bonuses for seasonal lifeguards from $500 to $600 and temporarily easing the residency requirement for applicants who may live in Chicago suburbs. Unprepared is an understatement.

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Whether the Park District will have enough personnel to open pools in early July remains to be seen.

But one City Council member, Ald. Ray Lopez (15th), has already seen a rise in the number of open fire hydrants. Children are seeking relief from the heat and some fun as they splash in the water gushing from these fire hydrants, said Lopez, who is running for mayor.

That’s a problem for the children, who risk hurting themselves, and also for the city.

When a fire hydrant is opened illegally, the hydrant could get damaged and there could be a loss of water pressure — a dangerous scenario if a fire breaks out.

Closed swimming pools are not the most important problem Chicago faces.

But taxpayers deserve the services and amenities their money pays for. And when an amenity that’s an outlet for young people and other residents is unavailable, there’s always a risk of getting into hot water.

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