Student athletes protest Salt Lake County’s restriction on swim meets at public indoor pools

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – Dozens of high school swimming athletes from across the county spent their Thanksgiving weekend protesting in front of the Salt Lake County government building Friday afternoon. They urged county officials to lift COVID-19 restrictions that no longer allows their teams to practice at the public indoor pools.

Not every school has its own indoor swimming pool. So high schools like Mountain Ridge, Alta, Herriman, Riverton, Corner Canyon, East, West, Highland, West Jordan, and Hillcrest rely on county-owned public pools and pay a rental fee for the season to use the lanes for practice.

But this swim season, it’s a different story. County pools are no longer available for them to gather for swim meets.

“As a senior, it’s really difficult for me. I really wanted to enjoy this last year of my swim career,” said Audrey Pierce, Senior at Mountain Ridge High School. “The impact actually has been really significant because our team lost a lot of their motivation. We’re a fairly new school and we really wanted to swim this year to show everybody that we really deserve to be one of the best.”

“It’s really important to me because this is my own sport that I really enjoy. I met a lot of my good friends on the team,” said Brock Jessop, Senior at Alta High School.

Under Governor Gary Herbert’s latest COVID-19 safety orders, winter high school sports such as swim teams are allowed to meet again. But individual jurisdictions, such as Salt Lake County can still make their own decisions on whether it’s safe enough to allow groups inside their facilities.

County officials told ABC4 News, the amount of people that would be inside their facilities with swim teams present would be unmanageable for proper COVID-19 safety protocols.

Additionally, some students and parents have asked why football or other high school sports are allowed to meet when swim teams that rely on county pools cannot. The county clarified that their decisions are separate and independent from schools. Sports that practice on campus do not follow the same guidelines and restrictions as sports that use public facilities such as the county pools.

In a statement, Mayor Jenny Wilson wrote in part:

Salt Lake County reviews data surround COVID cases in our community on a weekly basis. Due to the incredibly high case count, additional restrictions were placed on use at all county-owned venues. We will continue to review data and upon declining cases, we will ease restrictions.

We are all in this together. If we wear masks, social distance from those not living in our households, and follow other basic health hygiene, we will get through this time.”

Although this issue does not fall under the Salt Lake County Health Department’s line of work, they issued this statement:

[Our] water quality bureau’s recommendations to pools in the county are in line with the governor’s order; namely that swim teams can meet as long as the venue (the pool) ensures each swimmer is in their own lane (unless they’re sharing with someone from their same household) and that social distancing is practiced at all times, including on the pool deck.

If a pool isn’t confident that it can successfully enforce those state requirements at all times, we are supportive of the pool choosing to disallow swim teams until the risk of transmission has decreased; the decision about whether to allow swim teams and take on that enforcement responsibility or not is up to the pool owner/operator, and that goes for all pools in Salt Lake County, county-owned, and operated or otherwise.

However, student athletes at the protest told ABC4 News they believe there’s a way to allow them to continue practicing while maintaining safe COVID-19 protocols.

“We actually have people watching us at all times, making sure that we are six feet apart inside the facility. In the locker rooms, we have a coach making sure that we’re taking our cleansing showers and that we’re walking in the right directions,” said Pierce.

“We get to the facility. We have our masks on up until we get into the water. As soon as we get out of the water, we have our masks on again,” said Jessop.

County officials said members of the public, including student athletes are still allowed to come inside to practice or exercise. But they have to do it on an individual, reservation basis and pay the entry fee. 

“Swimmers continue to train at the pools at their own expense, but when they aren’t training as a team, many of the guidelines and safety measures outlined are not being followed. The controlled environment of the team ensures contract tracing, whereas when the athletes swim during public swim hours, they are in contact with athletes from different schools and unchecked adults,” stated a letter from multiple high school head and assistant swim coaches to the Salt Lake City Mayor and Council.

Students said they felt this was unfair and created barriers for those who can’t afford the fee. They said they hope to come to a resolution with the county before the swim season ends in February.

“We’re taking a lot of precautions. I think this is one of the safest winter sports,” said Jessop. “My biggest fear is that we get shut down permanently, that we won’t get to come back at any time.”

Following the protest, Salt Lake County’s Parks and Recreation Department issued this statement to ABC4 News:

Salt Lake County acknowledges and appreciates the responsible civic engagement by students today and the coaches and teams who contacted us this week regarding the use of County Recreation Centers for organized swim team practices.

The operation of County facilities is very complex. For months now, we have reviewed operational guidelines on a weekly basis as we’ve battled COVID. Salt Lake County’s goals with County-owned facilities are to promote community health and slow the spread of the virus.

Face coverings and social distancing have been the cornerstones of this plan. The County’s senior leadership team and our health authorities are meeting Monday morning to specifically review school teams’ use of our facilities and will be in touch with further information as we continue to review and refine facility guidelines during this critical period of COVID-19 response.”

Rosie Nguyen is an award-winning journalist who joined the ABC4 News team as a reporter in January 2018. In September 2020, she embarked on a new journey as the anchor for the CW30 News at 7 p.m. Although she’s not out in the field anymore, she is continuing her passion for social justice and community issues through the nightly “In Focus” discussions.
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