Mitchell's outdoor pool caps summer season without coronavirus outbreak

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An aerial photo of the Outdoor Aquatic Center in MItchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Opening Mitchell’s outdoor pool this summer in the face of COVID-19 was a bold decision, but city officials are breathing a sigh of relief after making it through the season with no outbreaks.

Aside from Mitchell, every South Dakota city with a population of at least 5,000 opted to keep their outdoor pools closed for the summer to reduce the threat of spreading the coronavirus. With the spotlight beaming on Mitchell’s Outdoor Aquatic Center throughout the summer, Aquatics Coordinator Jamie Henkel was confident that her staff could implement the safety measures and make it through the summer without any outbreaks linked to the pool facility.

“Our lifeguards did an amazing job, and I trusted them to do everything they could to keep everyone safe,” Henkel said. “Parents and families were also smart about everything, so I give a huge amount of credit to the community as a whole for helping remind their kids to stay six feet apart from others.”

Although the city’s outdoor pool opened roughly two weeks later than normal, Henkel was pleasantly surprised by the number of pool goers, which saw roughly 5,000 fewer people than it did last summer.

The Outdoor Aquatic Center attracted a total of 13,204 pool goers this season from the June 8 opening to the Aug. 16 closing day, a decrease of 5,341 compared to the 2019 season that saw 18,545 attendees. Considering the first two weeks of the summer usually draws the largest number of pool goers in a typical summer, Henkel said the outdoor pool would have likely been on par to hit similar numbers as the previous year had it not been for the two-week delay to open.


For Henkel, the popularity of the outdoor pool this summer was a reflection of the community’s confidence in the team of 40 lifeguards who were tasked with maintaining a safe pool environment.

“It was amazing to see how appreciative so many people in the community were for the decision to open the pool. The first week and a half we were a little slower because I think many in the community were slowly inching their way to see how we were doing all the safety measures, but everyone was more comfortable a few weeks in,” Henkel said.

However, the risk of an outbreak stemming from the pool was a worry that Henkel had to quell at times during the summer.

“I definitely had my fair share of worries, because you’re being trusted to make the right calls and safety decisions at the pool with the hope of nobody getting the virus,” Henkel said.

With the city of Mitchell’s outdoor pool being one of the only options in the state, Henkel said she saw a fair number of out-of-town attendees this summer, some of whom trekked as far away as Yankton and from nearby area towns like Woonsocket. Among the 17 first class municipalities in the state, Aberdeen, Belle Fourche, Box Elder, Brandon, Brookings, Harrisburg, Huron, Madison, Pierre, Rapid City, Sioux Falls, Spearfish, Sturgis, Vermillion, Watertown and Yankton, all closed their outdoor pool facilities this summer.

“We had a ton of outside visitors from area towns, which isn’t abnormal. But we did have a lot of families from Sioux Falls and Yankton who would come to the pool many weekends,” Henkel said.

The formula that the lifeguard staff and pool goers used to combat spreading the virus included the staff using disinfecting equipment up to four to five times per day periodically, mask wearing for lifeguards in the chance six feet of separation wasn’t possible and excluding the use of some pool toys.

While rolling out the most effective safety precautions to reduce the virus from spreading inside the pool facility was a challenge in itself for Henkel and the Parks and Recreation Department, she gives all the credit to her staff of lifeguards for implementing those safety guidelines on a daily basis.


Henkel also used the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Red Cross guidelines to come up with the measures she implemented at the facility. Henkel pointed out the combination of the sun and chlorine being known to help kill the virus helped ease her nerves in opening the outdoor pool.

In addition to following the CDC and Red Cross guidelines, Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Powell said the safety measures followed the National Recreation and Parks Association. Powell credited the city of Mitchell and city boards overseeing the pool for supporting the pool decision.

“Things went great this summer at the pool, and I’m proud of the decision. Outdoor activity is vital to living a healthy lifestyle,” Powell said. “There were guidelines set by multiple agencies and organizations on how to open pools safely, and we followed those well.”

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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