Water parks face difficult decisions

Jon Campbell New York State Team
A view from a previous year at Roseland Waterpark in Canandaigua, as a father and son ride on the Extreme Tube Ride.

CANANDAIGUA — Roseland Waterpark faced a choice: Lose an entire summer, or try to get creative.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration has prevented water parks from opening amid the coronavirus pandemic, citing concern about the potential for community spread. Public swimming pools, however, were allowed to open last month.

So on Thursday, Roseland revealed its plan to operate in a gray area, pledging to open only a 27,000-square-foot pool and a nearby splash zone Friday while leaving its slides and other attractions shuttered.

It didn't work. New York state stepped in and Roseland abandoned its plan by Friday morning. By Monday, the park announced it wouldn't open at all this summer.

Roseland's tussle with regulators highlights the difficult circumstances facing water parks throughout New York, most of which make their money during a summer window many consider all-too-brief to begin with.

Facilities from the Hudson Valley to the Finger Lakes and beyond have been left wondering when they may be able to open their doors for the summer season. And as they days go by, some — like Roseland — may be forced to forego an entire season even if the state does give them the green light sometime soon.

"We respect the position of the State of New York and will continue to follow all guidelines," Roseland Waterpark General Manager Dan Fuller said in a statement. “It will be sad to not be able to see all the smiling faces this summer."

About 30% of America's more than 800 outdoor water parks have decided simply not to open for this season, according to Hotel & Leisure Advisors, a leading water park consulting firm.

About a quarter of the more than 200 indoor water parks, which normally operate year round, are currently closed, the firm found.

New York barred nonessential, in-person work at businesses across the state as the coronavirus continued its torrid spread in mid-March.

Since then, the state has launched a phased reopening process, with most water parks and amusement facilities assuming they would be included in the fourth and final phase. But when Phase 4 came around in most areas late last month, New York's official guidance made clear a number of businesses — water parks, concert venues, movie theaters and the like — would remain closed until the state said otherwise.

Empire State Development, the state entity overseeing which businesses can open during the COVID-19 pandemic, confirmed Monday that water parks must remain closed in their entirety — even if they only want to open their pools, like Roseland planned.

That's left the state's dozens of water parks left wondering when they may get the chance to reopen.

During a typical summer, SplashDown Beach water park in Fishkill, Dutchess County, would have opened Memorial Day weekend and closed on Labor Day.

Steve Turk, who owns SplashDown with his wife Shelley, said the operation has lost millions of dollars and hundreds of seasonal and full-time workers are affected. And then there is the nearly $750,000 the Turks spent on coronavirus safety measures when they were anticipating opening in Phase 4.

"We're mortally wounded," said Steve Turk. "This has just been devastating."

Asked if SplashDown would have to pull the plug on its 2020 summer season, Steve Turk said, "We have a plan A, B and C. We can be ready to open. We're not throwing in the towel."

In the Catskills, plans to reopen the year-old, $180 million-plus Kartrite Resort & Indoor Waterpark remain up in the air.

The massive park in Thompson, Sullivan County, released a July 6 statement that it will choose a reopening date and settle on a final plan when it receives new, water park-specific guidance from the state.

In the meantime, its employees are undergoing more training for when guests come back.

“As we wait on capacity guidelines in hopes of welcoming back as many families as we safely can, we are creating and installing social distancing signage, and modifying our daily activities calendar to promote responsible distancing guidelines and participation for our tiny travelers in accordance with CDC,” David Kohlasch, the park's general manager, said in a statement.

As for public health concerns around reopening the park? “They’re huge,” said Nancy McGraw, Sullivan County’s public health director, who has been consulting with the Kartrite.

“Obviously, when you have a large number of people interacting in close quarters, there are concerns, but you also have people coming from other states” to water parks, McGraw said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise against wearing some face coverings in the water, and getting wet water park visitors, especially children, to put on masks and observe social distancing is no easy task, said David Sangree, president of Hotel & Leisure Advisors.

Then there are all the people flooding public spaces, from state parks to water parks, as summer heats up. The Typhoon Texas Houston water park sparked public outrage on Friday, when a video emerged showing a big crowd largely without masks, while local media reported a park employee told them, “We know this isn’t for everyone.”

“The biggest challenge that water parks face is the crowding and that people are not typically wearing masks in the water,” Sangree said. But reopening “is doable” if parks staff up or at least hold the line on staffing despite big revenue shortfalls and added pandemic-related expenses.

Though chlorine will offer some germ protection while visitors are in the water, park goers should expect a different experience when water parks reopen, Sangree said, including reduced capacities, canceled events and the closure of attractions like aquatic play structures that cram large groups of small children into close quarters for play.

It's the concern about crowds and the coronavirus that has kept the Cuomo administration from reopening water parks, movie theaters, concert venues and more.

Cuomo has repeatedly touted the state's cautious approach to reopening and its work bending the COVID-19 curve. New York was hit harder than any state in March and April, with more than 24,000 confirmed deaths and 400,000 confirmed cases since the state discovered its first case March 1.

But New York's positive COVID-19 test rate has hovered around 1% for most of June and July, one of the lowest rates in the nation. More than 30 other states have seen increasing cases in recent weeks.

"We went through it here in New York," Cuomo said at a news conference Monday. "We went through it in a worst case scenario. It is about following the data and following the science and taking the precautions and doing what's right."

Turk, the water park owner in Dutchess County, said he's just hoping for some clarity.

"We know they've got a lot on their plate in Albany," he said. "We just don't understand the timeline as it relates to our industry."

Timing is everything

After much uncertainty over the COVID-19 pandemic for months, and then a glimmer of hope that Roseland Waterpark would be allowed to reopen along with other businesses as part of Phase 4, came a whirlwind of starts and stops beginning late last week that culminated in the news the Canandaigua park won’t open after all in 2020.

Here’s a quick timeline of how it went down.

June 11: Public pools and playgrounds were allowed to reopen in the state of New York.

June 23: Phase 4 was officially announced. Amusement parks and waterparks were specifically excluded from the announcement.

June 26: New York state entered Phase 4.

July 8: After communication with the Finger Lakes Control Group and the Department of Health, Roseland Waterpark announced an opening day of July 10, operating the pools only in line with published guidelines for operating public pools.

July 10: At 9 a.m. Roseland Waterpark received communication from the deputy general counsel for the state Department of Health. Roseland Waterpark immediately complied. The determination was made that the park will remain closed until the governor rescinds the executive order pertaining to amusement parks and waterparks.

July 13: Roseland Waterpark announced it will not operate for the 2020 season.

In a statement, waterpark officials said: “Roseland Waterpark would also like to extend a public thank-you to their staff who have worked incredibly hard to prepare Roseland Waterpark to open and operate safely. Their hard work completing training, organizing staff, performing maintenance, and keeping our customers informed in this fast-changing environment has not gone unnoticed. Roseland Waterpark’s decision to not operate is partially out of respect for their staff so that they will have the opportunity to find other means of employment this summer.”

The waterpark is expected to open again next summer.

— Mike Murphy, Messenger Post Media