SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- Swimming pools across the Bay Area closed at the start of the pandemic and remain closed in San Francisco, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. But KPIX 5 discovered the city allowed one pool to be open, despite its own health directive that banned pool use.
The pool is in the basement at St. Ignatius College Preparatory school. We got a tip that a swim team has been practicing in the water here, while other swim teams in the city have had to make do with dry land training, like the Boys and Girls Aquatic Club swim team.
We caught up with them sweating it up and down the Coit Tower stairs one recent morning. It's part of their dry land practice. They're a competitive team and have to keep in shape since they can't swim.
"We stopped swimming as soon as the shelter in place order went into effect, in mid-March," said their coach Jonathan Riley, who is also aquatics director at the Boys and Girls Club. "We have tried to do the best job that we can to make sure that the kids are staying active, that they're having fun and they're engaging with each other," said Riley.
But across town, the Fog City Hammerheads, one of their competitive rivals, is practicing in the indoor pool at St. Ignatius College Preparatory. Pool sessions are running five days a week. We recently watched kids coming and going all afternoon and got a peek at the pool, where we saw practice in full swing, seven kids in all, with two kids per lane.
Maurice Wong, father of one of the swimmers told us he feels fine about it.
"Because this belongs to the school, so in a sense, the school has like a control of the environment so that it can make it safe, so in a sense I kind of feel safe for my daughter to swim here," said Wong.
We couldn't find any other pool in the city open, or any other swim teams practicing in pools.
Lara Hitchcock with the Presidio YMCA confirmed they were closed.
"Initially it had looked like our outdoor pools would be opening at the end of June, that has not happened in San Francisco, as I am sure you know," said Hitchcock.
The Presidio Pirates are only doing virtual practice on Zoom. That's because California health officials say pools are not permitted in Stage 2 of the shelter in place during the coronavirus pandemic.
In an email dated June 24, the San Francisco Health Department told KPIX 5, "Indoor swimming pools are not scheduled to reopen until August or later". A week later the department's spokesperson Rachael Kagan confirmed.
"There are no exceptions as far as I know," said Kagan.
Public health experts say there's a reason.
"The problem with pools, in general, is that it brings people together in close proximity without masks," said Dr. John Swartzberg, Clinical Professor Emeritus at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.
Dr. Swartzberg said just because there's chlorine in swimming pool water doesn't make it safe, especially if the pool is indoors.
"This is an absolute setup for getting a whole group of people infected. And of course, those people will go on and infect other people," said Swartzberg.
So how were the Hammerheads allowed to practice in a pool despite the county health directives? The school turned down our request for an interview on-camera.
But John Mulkerrins, the school's Director of Athletics at St. Ignatius told us in an email, "SF Fog City Hammerheads applied to a San Francisco office to host a swim camp at St. Ignatius. They were approved." The email goes on to say: "Two city inspectors visited our school … they told us all looked good." (See John Mulkerrins' complete email response below.)
We checked and sure enough, the team's application for a summer swim camp with the Department of Children Youth and Families was approved in early June. But Executive Director Maria Su didn't seem to know that as she told us in an email dated July 6 that "indoor swimming is definitely not allowed under the current health order."
KPIX also discovered the inspectors who visited the school were investigating a complaint about the pool being open in violation of the health directive. The complaint was called in to 311 on June 22 and forwarded to the city's COVID-19 Community Education Response Team or CERT. It reads:
"Customer would like to report a social distancing violation at the St. Ignatius school summer camp program. The students are using the pool and as late as last week they were doing a 'scrimmage' game and drills in the water, no social distancing."
That complaint ended up at the City Attorney's office. We are told the City Attorney consulted with the city's top health officer, who determined that indoor pools can be used for summer camp, including the one at St. Ignatius. On July 7, the city and county amended the FAQs regarding its health directive to state that summer camps could use indoor pools. (see page 23).
That could open up the door for other swim teams in the city to practice in the pool again if they can get approved as a summer camp. Coach Riley says he's going to proceed with caution with his team, especially since on the same day SFDPH relaxed pool rules, Mayor London Breed announced a pause in the next phase of reopening, amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.
"I think we'll do the best job we can to be nimble and smart with any decision that we make and make sure that the kids' safety is most important," said Riley.
Parent Alison Eastwood, whose daughter is on the Boys and Girls Club swim team, agrees.
"This is a public health issue and I can't look at just my needs, my individual needs. It's everybody's need, right? So it's just not safe right now," said Eastwood.
For now, the team is making the most of it.
"We are basically using San Francisco as our workout facility. On Monday we were at Crissy Field, yesterday we were swimming in the bay and today we are here at Coit Tower, doing some stairs," said Riley.
Email from St Ignatius:
KPIX was cc'd on the communication regarding pool use at St. Ignatius by the Fog City Hammerheads Swim Team:
Here is the sequence of events for approved pool use at SI:
1. SF Fog City Hammerheads applied to a San Francisco office to host a swim camp at St. Ignatius. They were approved.
2. All camps at SI are run under the SF health and safety guidelines. SF Fog has their safety guidelines posted on the pool door.
3. Two City inspectors visited our school to check on the camps and the health & safety plan. They told us all looked good and the City Attorney was going to follow up with a call, which is their procedure.
4. The City Attorney called me recently and let me know the SF Health Officer is allowing our swimming pool to be open as long as we are following the health and safety guidelines defined in the health directive. SF Fog is following the guidelines.
5. I spoke to John Dahlz and asked him about the SF Fog City Hammerheads website. He changed the wording on the website because it was confusing and to state the camp was at capacity because a new session started today.
While I do not know about the other camps in San Francisco and what they are offering, I know the SF Fog City Hammerheads Program has followed all the procedures to host a summer swim camp at SI's pool.
Sincerely, John Mulkerrins
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