Kitchener-Waterloo·In Depth

Ontario waterparks hope to open this summer, but need the province's OK

Waterparks in Ontario were not allowed to open last summer because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. Operators are hoping to get a green light from the province before the hot weather returns.

'We're ready to go,' says Mark Bingeman of Bingemans in Kitchener

Waterparks in Ontario weren't allowed to open in 2020 because of COVID-19 restrictions. Operators are hoping this summer will be different, but they say they need the province to give them to go-ahead. (Adrien Veczan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

With hot summer days approaching, Ontario waterpark operators are hoping people will be able to get their adrenaline pumping on a waterslide, float along a lazy river or splash in a wave pool.

Last summer, water parks in the province were not able to open because of COVID-19 restrictions.

That's led some operators in southern Ontario to band together and form a coalition to lobby the government to make sure they're not closed for a second summer.

Mark Bingeman of Bingemans in Kitchener, which operates Big Splash, says conversations with the tourism ministry about the coming summer began last fall.

"When we look at all the waterparks across the province going a second season without being open, it would certainly be devastating," Bingeman said in an interview with CBC News.

"We certainly expect reduced capacity and various protocols, not only for our staff, but obviously for protocols for guests that they would have to sign off on as they're coming in to just to make sure that we will do the right thing and and keep each other safe."

Bingeman adds that operators need to know if they can open sooner, rather than later, so they can get equipment ready and hire staff for when the hot weather arrives.

Now a 'critical time'

Alon Shatil, general manager and part of the ownership team at East Park in London — which has a waterpark along with golf, rock climbing and an arcade on site — says waterpark operators understand there were many unknowns last year which prevented them from opening. 

While it was disappointing they couldn't open in 2020, Shatil says he doesn't want to dwell on it and agrees with Bingeman that the sooner they know about this summer, the better.

"Waterparks don't turn on in a day," he told CBC News. "There's a lot of lead time that's required in order to get the facilities ready, fill the pools, get all the maintenance done, the inspections, and hire and train the staff. So that's why now is sort of a critical time, because right now is when we need to start that process going."

The waterslides at Bingemans stayed dry last summer because the province didn't allow waterparks to open due to COVID-19. Waterpark operators across Ontario hope they'll be allowed to welcome people this year when the hot weather returns. (Craig Norris/CBC)

Steve Mayer, general manager of Wet 'n' Wild in Toronto, said waterparks already have many safety protocols in place and adjusting for COVID-19 would not take much.

"Waterparks have chlorinated pools, ultraviolet light from the sun and specialized equipment and fresh air to fight the spread of the virus, not to mention enforcing physical distancing and other safety measures to keep guests and staff safe," Mayer in a news release for the Waterparks of Ontario Coalition.

"We have seen by experience that even in a pandemic, waterparks are a perfectly safe option for a fun family staycation." 

Keeping people safe

The Waterparks of Ontario Coalition points to Quebec where water parks opened last summer without any reports of associated outbreaks.

Mont Cascades waterpark in Cantley, Que., was allowed to operate at one-third capacity while Calypso Waterpark in Limoges, Ont., near Ottawa, wasn't able to open at all.

Calypso Valcartier Group operates both Mont Cascades and Calypso. Senior director Sandra Nadeau says in Quebec, operators know they'll be able to open waterparks once the community is in "yellow" in that province's colour-coded system. 

In Ontario, there's no clear path forward. She says it will take between three to four weeks at a minimum to get ready to open the gates for their parks, so the sooner they can know, the better.

"We are working really closely with the health department and also the tourism minister and we are really hoping to be able to operate this summer. We're confident, actually, because we did in Quebec," she said.

"It's something we can do and respecting all the COVID measures. And people are safe in our parks. So we really, really hope to have to know a little more about when we can announce officially that there can be open."

Meanwhile, the Lifesaving Society has issued a guide to reopening pools and waterfronts that was updated last November after the first summer of COVID-19.

The recommendations include ensuring staff are screened daily and that they wear masks, even outside, and that physical distancing between people attending the areas must be maintained, including that crowds don't form in lineups.

Michael Shane, the safety standards and management training director of the Lifesaving Society Ontario, said in an email that waterparks will be opened at the discretion of the province and "we support their decisions regarding the safe operation of public swimming pools."

In the U.S., the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that it's "not aware of any scientific reports of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreading to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, water playgrounds, or other treated aquatic venues."

A part of Bingemans' Big Splash water park sits empty as waterpark operators lobby the provincial government to be allowed to open this summer. (Craig Norris/CBC)

'Too early to speculate' on reopening

Mike Harris, the MPP for Kitchener-Conestoga where Bingemans is located, says he's heard the concerns and has been advocating on behalf of the park so it can open this summer.

"I am hopeful that as more vaccines get rolled out, we will turn the corner on the pandemic and the chief medical officer of health and local medical officer will be able to advise that it is safe to open water parks and other attractions in the near future," Harris told CBC News.

Bingeman's Big Splash has also been in talks with Lisa MacLeod, the provincial minister of tourism, culture and sport. 

Dakota Brasier, MacLeod's press secretary, said in an email that "it is too early to speculate on how and when restrictions will be loosened to permit these attractions to reopen."

She wants businesses to know they can access funding through the tourism and hospitality support grant, announced in the budget this week, as well as the Ontario tourism recovery program.

"The Ontario government continues to closely monitor public health trends and will always make decisions prioritizing the health and safety of all individuals and families," Brasier said.

Bingeman says he understands there are more pressing issues for the province right now, including the growing number of COVID-19 cases that involve variants of concern. But he says he hopes the province can give a yes or no response soon.

"We're ready to go," he said. "We're just waiting for that green light as to what capacity we can have and move forward." 

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