Lifeguards call for Quebec's community pools to reopen

Quebec's Lifesaving Society fears the province will see a spike in drownings in dangerous waterways if public pools don't open soon, especially as the weather heats up.

If pools remain closed, Lifesaving Society fears seeing more drownings in dangerous waterways

Raynald Hawkins, executive director of the Lifesaving Society in Quebec, wants the provincial government to make a decision on community pools so public pools aren't faced with a staffing shortage. (Matt D'Amours/CBC)

Normally, by the end of May, public pools in Quebec are being freshly filled with water, and the hundreds of lifeguards who work in them are trained and ready to go. But with COVID-19 closures still in effect, there is no telling when that will happen this year. 

The Lifesaving Society in Quebec fears a spike in drownings if public pools don't open soon, especially as the weather heats up.

Raynald Hawkins, executive director of the Lifesaving Society's Quebec division, says public pools are some of the safest places in which to swim, with the majority of drowning deaths happening in backyard pools or in open water. 

"If it is not an issue for the health and safety of everyone, I'd prefer to see people inside a swimming pool and beaches than open water," said Hawkins. 

Quebec averages about 80 drowning cases annually, with more than 40 per cent of those in rivers. 

While Montreal reopened several of its splash pads to help people beat the heat this week, all municipal pools are still closed until further notice. 

On Tuesday, Montreal's public health director, Dr. Mylène Drouin, said health authorities are hoping to give the go-ahead to the reopening of pools soon. 

"We'd like that they open with distancing policies, and foot traffic would not be the same as in the past," she said.

If public health authorities do not come to a decision about pools soon, Hawkins said, he's concerned there may be a shortage of lifeguards once the pools finally do reopen.

With pools closed, staff have nowhere to train, and they would need extra training this year just to figure out how to adapt their habits and comply with public health directives associated with the pandemic. 

"We need to prepare all the lifeguards with this new reality," said Hawkins, "what that means for CPR, for example, what that means for our first aid, what that means for our rescues." 

There are also still questions to be answered on how swimmers would physically distance themselves from one another.

Hawkins said they are looking at ways they might be able to reduce that risk, such as separating pool lanes or zones. They would also have to dramatically decrease the number of staff and swimmers allowed in the pools.

In an interview with CBC News earlier this month, microbiologist and public health consultant Vicky Huppé said the risk of transmitting COVID-19 through water is relatively low, and adding chlorine to the water reduces that risk even further.

Lifeguards ready to return

In a survey conducted by the Lifesaving Society, 80 per cent of 15,000 lifeguards said they were ready and willing to go back to work.

But lifeguards said that they'd need to know whether pools were reopening soon, or they would search for another job, said Hawkins. 

Warren Duncan, a lifeguard and manager at the Westmount recreation centre's outdoor pool, said he received a similar response from his staff. 

"Everyone is just eagerly awaiting potentially coming back to work and finding some sense of normality," Duncan said. 

While he hopes the pool will reopen soon, he said the safety of his staff and swimmers is paramount, and they need clear guidelines from public health authorities. 

With files from Matt D'Amours

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