When Gary Worters moved with his wife to White Rock from Vancouver Island a few years ago – just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic – he was thrilled to discover that he was only a few blocks away from the South Surrey Indoor Pool.
“Walking distance,” he said, adding that such walks – not to mention the pool itself – would do wonders for his arthritis.
However, the 75-year-old has yet to even step inside the facility; it closed – as did other City of Surrey facilities – shortly after Worters arrived in town, when the pandemic hit. In recent months, as restrictions have changed, the city’s indoor aquatic facilities have all reopened, with the exception of the South Surrey Indoor Pool, which remains closed.
Throughout the pandemic, the city has repeatedly pointed to a lack of lifeguards as the reason the pool remains without a tentative date for reopening, and reiterated that point again Thursday.
“City of Surrey facilities, like many across the province, are challenged to recruit sufficient lifeguard and support staff that has impacted pool openings, swim lesson offerings and hours of operation. The City has been focusing on lifeguard recruitment over the last several months,” a statement sent to Peace Arch News Thursday (May 19) from the city’s parks, recreation and culture department reads.
“Having pools return to full operating hours with a full staffing complement remains a priority for the City. As of April 8 2022, 60% of staff have returned or been newly hired. It is anticipated that approximately 205 additional lifeguard staff will need to be recruited to reach pre-pandemic capacity and allow us to re-open pools with full operating hours safely.”
Worters, however, says the city’s argument doesn’t hold water.
The senior, who swims at the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre three times a week, said he’s asked staff at Grandview if there is, in fact, a shortage of city-employed lifeguards available, “and they said absolutely not.”
“They told me they’ve got more than enough,” Worters said.
The city recently announced that its eight outdoor pools will open for the season over the next six weeks.
Responding to a question about how the city can adequately staff the eight outdoor pools, but not the one indoor facility that remains closed, a statement from the city’s parks department noted that operation of the outdoor pools is contracted out to a company called Tides Out, while noting that they, too, have had trouble recruiting enough lifeguards “similar to aquatic providers in the Lower Mainland and across the province.”
Mitch Howlett, a supervisor with Tides Out, confirmed Friday that “there is definitely a lifeguard shortage being felt across the whole Lower Mainland and not just Surrey.”
“After a couple years of closed pools, reduced capacities and COVID restrictions preventing training of new staff, there is a bit of a void,” he said.
He said that due to the smaller size of the outdoor pools, compared to their indoor counterparts, it takes fewer lifeguards to properly staff them – something the City of Surrey also noted in its statement. Indoor facilities, Howlett said, “can require 1o times as many staff to operate.”
As well, he noted that, for lifeguards looking for summer employment, working at outdoor pools is more enjoyable.
“There is also something to be said about spending your summer working outdoors that makes it a fun experience for the staff and keeps them coming back,” he said.
In February, Surrey Coun. Linda Annis released a statement protesting that only three of the city’s five indoor aquatic centres were open at the time. With regard to staffing issues, she blamed Mayor Doug McCallum and the “out of control costs” of the police transition.
As for a possible solution, Worters wondered whether the City of White Rock would ever consider leasing the South Surrey Indoor Pool from its neighbour to the north. When asked if such a move would – even hypothetically – be possible, the City of White Rock referred the question back to Surrey’s parks and recreation department.
Worters also suggested that the fact that seniors are the primary users of the smaller South Surrey facility could be playing a part in keeping it closed.
“That’s the theory I’ve come to… because we pay seniors’ rates to use the pool, we get a discount, so maybe it’s not economically viable to reopen it,” he said.
“Or maybe the building is in disrepair, and at this point, after being closed for so long, it would cost too much money to fire it back up again. But if that’s the case, just tell us the truth.
“If you’re never going to open the pool again, just say it.”