EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE A lifeguard watches over swimmers at Willamalane Park Swim Center in Springfield on Tuesday afternoon.

After a long freeze, recreation centers are dipping a toe back into the water.

Lane County last week reduced its COVID-19 risk category to “moderate,” allowing half-capacity at recreation sites. Joshua Norton, pool manager at Warren H. Daugherty Aquatic Center in Cottage Grove, said the best thing about reopening the pool is “having life in the facility again.” 

Norton came on board in August, so it’s especially exciting for him to hear activity back in the building, “because I’ve only ever been a Covid manager,” Norton said. The pool has resumed operation through the week and has brought back family recreation swim, lap swim and therapy swim schedules. 

Jase Newton, recreation services director at Willamalane in Springfield, knows the feeling. He, too, started in his role during Covid, in November, and “to be able to see people’s faces and staff in person – at least from their eyes up – is a really welcoming feeling,” he said. “These last couple of weeks have been really neat.” 

Willamalane Park and Recreation District maintains and operates five recreation facilities, in addition to 46 parks and natural areas. Among its facilities are two swim centers – Splash! at Lively Park and Willamalane Park Swim Center.

“A big one for us is being able to open the Swim Center,” he said. “I just stopped by there earlier today and just to hear kids in there … to hear the water going over the edge of the pool – not that silence that we’ve heard for the last few months – was extremely fulfilling. You forget how exciting it is to just go into a building and not hear silence, or hear one staff member say ‘hey’ and have it echo through the room. To hear the room filled with noise is so exciting.”

While the Swim Center is open, Splash! at Lively Park remains closed due to a lack of staffing, particularly a lack of lifeguards. Before the pandemic, the District had around 65 lifeguards available. “When we reopened, only 23 returned, so it’s been challenging to staff the facility,” Newton said. 

Willamalane plans to open a lifeguard certificate program to try to fill its roster, and recruitment efforts are also underway as Daugherty Aquatic Center looks to hire up to five lifeguards in addition to a pool assistant, Norton said.  

The shortage of qualified help extends across business sectors.

My Boys Pizza in Creswell, which is expanding its menu to include fried chicken dinners in the next few weeks, is ramping up hiring. “The only thing keeping us from launching right now is staffing. We are hiring and posting job positions wherever possible,” owner Blaine Taylor said.

The issues with staffing may have to do with limited hours or a truncated schedule being less desirable or viable for people, Newton said, coupled with general apprehension about transitioning back to in-person work. 

Both facilities use a reservation system to sign up for classes, and are open Monday through Friday. On March 22, the Willamalane Park Swim Center will expand hours to Monday to Friday, 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Recreation swims for families will also begin, opening options for families to play together.

Better days ahead, indeed. 

“We have plans to bring back all the programming we did before, considering the metrics, but the plans are still in place,” Norton said of Daugherty Aquatic Center. “We are moving in lots of directions.”

At the one-year anniversary mark since the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Lane County, 11.67% of the county population is fully vaccinated and vaccine distribution is increasing. 

Under federal guidance, states are to open vaccine eligibility to all adults by May 1, and Oregon is on track with its current eligibility timelines based on current allocations. Timelines for eligible groups will advance if Oregon receives enough doses from the federal government. Until the state receives more clarity on when and how many doses will be received, they plan to keep the current timelines in place. In the meantime, Lane County is eager to increase vaccinations and is actively preparing for distribution of increased allocations.

On Friday, March 19 a drive-up vaccination clinic will be held in the Bohemia Park parking lot. McCoy’s Pharmacy has partnered with the City of Cottage Grove to provide this drive-up clinic, which will be held from 10 a.m. to noon for residents aged 65 or older. To register, call 541-942-1185. This vaccine clinic will be available every Friday until no longer needed. 

Vaccine availability is on the rise at several local pharmacies, including the local Bi-Marts, Safeways and Albertsons, and HealthMart pharmacies. Jeannie Marr, chief executive officer of the HealthMarts, said she has 140 vaccination appointments booked for Thursday at the Creswell pharmacy alone. 

“We’re heading in the right direction for sure,” Newton said.