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Aquatics professionals take heart that 2021 promises more facility openings than 2020. However, the fears of many about staffing seem to be coming true.

Many facilities that closed last year are opening at least partially. The City of Phoenix, for instance, will open 12 of its 29 pools after a completely shuttered 2020. It will operate much like others did last year, with significantly reduced capacities and programming limited to those most conducive to social distancing. “It’s a very soft opening, but we’re open,” said Kelly Martinez, aquatic coordinator for the City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation.

Milwaukee will gradually open, starting with four of its 12 pools by Memorial Day, and up to 10 later in the season, said Recreation Manager Nicole Jacobson. Though officials greenlit all facilities for 2021, the Recreation Department is going slow to keep things manageable as they prepare the physical pools and facilities, but also because of staffing shortages.

Most facilities seem to be facing this problem, coming up significantly short on hires as summer looms. Former lifeguards have turned down offers for a number of reasons outside normal attrition. Some are concerned about infection. But most found other jobs, especially in thriving businesses such as grocery stores or food-delivery services. Some moved to competing aquatics programs that opened in 2020. These former employees feel settled, secure and, in some cases, are better paid.

With high schools closed or banning in-person visitors, on-site recruitment is off the table. This leaves strategies such as social media marketing, employee referral incentives and virtual job fairs.

The situation is impacting many reopening plans. “We have developed a tiered opening schedule based on how many lifeguards we train and hire,” said Ashley Wells, aquatic program manager for City of Austin. “If we have 200 lifeguards, we’ll open certain pools. If we get 250, we’ll open another set of pools.” To operate fully, they'll need about 600 more guards than they currently have, she said.

In addition to a social media campaign, the city is also seeking to diversity its staff by advertising in local media geared to minority communities.