When public health officials announced pools across the province would be allowed to reopen as soon as Friday, 70-year-old Linda Larkin immediately called her friend, neighbour and long-time swimming buddy.
However, as Larkin and Lorna Kirkness, 70, read the news article together over the phone, dismay set in.
Despite being allowed to reopen March 5, City of Winnipeg pools would remain shut for the time being amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — and the pair’s regular aqua aerobics classes at Kinsmen Sherbrook would stay cancelled for now.
"I depend on the exercise programs at the pool to help me maintain independence, continue to be mobile, and keep healthy," Larkin said Wednesday. "I need that pool to be open."
For more than a decade, Larkin and Kirkness have been taking thrice-a-week exercise classes at pools around the city, as a means of finding both fitness and friendship in their community.
"As with all seniors, we’ve been shut in (during the pandemic)," Larkin said. "Because I’m a single senior with no brothers and sisters, no family per se, I’m isolated. That social interaction is very important."
Larkin has arthritis and diabetes; Kirkness attends classes for those with arthritis and fibromyalgia.
"It’s really important for people like me to be able to exercise in the water for mobility issues," said Kirkness.
City of Winnipeg staff would not say Wednesday why civic pools, initially closed October 31, 2020, will remain shuttered.
Coun. Kevin Klein (Charleswood-Tuxedo-Westwood) said not even council has been made aware of the reasons.
“I depend on the exercise programs at the pool to help me maintain independence, continue to be mobile, and keep healthy. I need that pool to be open.” – Linda Larkin
Council has been told the city is working closely with the community services department of public health to determine when its pools can reopen, he said.
"A competent management team would have had structures or plans in place to open these buildings, so we could service the residents that require access to pools for their physical health, which also adds to their mental health right now," Klein said.
"As a public service, we need to provide better services to our residents."
However, Klein said he has heard some city pools, such as Pan-Am, have been open for one-on-one training since mid-February, but not for public use.
When asked about the reasoning behind ongoing closures, and to confirm whether one-on-one training has been taking place at some facilities, a representative for the city told the Free Press: "No reopening date for pools has been set yet."
“It definitely is important because a lot of our members and a lot of our seniors… come to the Rady just to enjoy our aquatics facility.” – Rady Centre communications co–ordinator Sheldon Appelle
Before the shutdown in October, aquatic fitness classes were decked out with COVID-19 safety precautions, Larkin and Kirkness said.
Classes had been limited to 10 attendees, face masks were required everywhere in the centre except the water itself, and the changing rooms were more than large enough for social distancing. "At all times, we felt quite safe," Larkin said.
Meanwhile, some of Winnipeg's non-public pools, that have been through the closure and reopening cycle before, are returning to early COVID-19 procedures to open their doors.
The Wellness Institute at Seven Oaks General Hospital, for example, will reopen its pool March 15.
The Rady Jewish Community Centre is determining its safety procedures, and plans to reopen at 25 per cent capacity, likely including fitness classes and lap swimming, as soon as possible.
"It definitely is important because a lot of our members and a lot of our seniors… come to the Rady just to enjoy our aquatics facility," said communications co-ordinator Sheldon Appelle. "We’re going to do everything possible to welcome them back."
Local YMCA pools, too, will open with strict restrictions, as early as Monday.
"We feel confident that we’ve got some measures in place both for our staff and our members to make it safe" said Michael Whalen, vice-president of health, fitness and aquatics at YMCA-YWCA Winnipeg.
Whalen said the branches will open pools to limited lane swimming as of Monday, provided there are enough certified lifeguards to staff the facilities. Two people will be allowed per lane, and will need to book 45-minute swim slots in advance.
Open swims, family swims and aquatic fitness classes won’t be allowed just yet, Whalen said, but the YMCA plans to bring them back as soon as possible.
"It’s a large part of people’s health and wellness regime," Whalen said. "It's definitely exciting... to bring some of our staff back who we haven't seen for a long time."
Julia-Simone Rutgers is a general-assignment reporter.