The Pawnee Plunge Water Park Sign located in front of the facility with two of the park's big slides in the background.
Pawnee Plunge Water Park in Columbus is closed this summer after it couldn’t find enough lifeguards to hire. Photo by Blaney Dreifurst

By Blaney Dreifurst

Nebraska News Service

As temperatures increase and COVID-19 restrictions loosen, some pools and water parks never even opened because there weren’t enough lifeguards, while others have found the staff for the summer.

 

The Pawnee Plunge Water Park in Columbus, home to the state’s only outdoor FlowRider with four huge slides and thousands of swimmers each summer, is closed for the summer, but considered keeping the lap pool option. 

The problem? There weren’t enough lifeguards. 

 

“It would have required 11 staff to run that part of the facility, but we still struggled to find 11 to open it,” said Doug Moore, the public property director for Columbus.

The Pawnee Plunge Water Park announced back in May that it would be closed for the summer. 

When the announcement was made, the teen lifeguards had to go find new jobs. 

Seventeen-year-old lifeguard McKenna Mausbach of Columbus did just that. 

Originally Mausbach was only going to work only as a lifeguard for the summer, but when the park closed, she got a job as a waitress. She plans on working both as a waitress and substitute lifeguard next summer. Mausbach said that working a different job has taught her how to work in a different atmosphere.

“It taught me a whole new perspective of how to work,” Mausbach said.

Many Columbus parents are upset that the water park will not open this summer. 

Missy Smolek of Columbus, mother of three, has bought season passes to the Pawnee Plunge for the last five years. 

“It was a great way for the boys to spend time with their buddies in a controlled and safe environment,” Smolek said.

Even though Columbus will not be opening its water park this summer, the city’s public pool called the Columbus Aquatic Center will open June 28. Due to the governor’s new directed health measures, the Columbus Aquatic Center will have a capacity of 50%.

Gov. Pete Ricketts announced June 15 that 89 counties would move into Phase III of reopening on June 22. The guidelines state that indoor gatherings will be limited to 50% and outdoor gatherings to 75%.

CurveAndSpeedSlideAtThePawneePlunge 300x200 - Lifeguard shortages, COVID-19 affect Nebraska pools and water parks
Pawnee Plunge Water Park in Columbus is closed this summer, leaving empty the popular slides. Photo by Blaney Dreifurst

Grand Island has two public outdoor aquatic facilities, Island Oasis Waterpark and the Lincoln Pool, that require 65 to 75 lifeguards to open both during the summer. 

This summer Grand Island found 25 lifeguards. 

As a result, Island Oasis Waterpark, which is home to a large wave pool and a two-story speed slide, will not open this summer, but people will be able to enjoy the 150-foot slide and one-meter diving board when Lincoln Pool opens July 1 with a capacity of 75%. Jeremy Bachmann, Grand Island’s recreation superintendent, is worried that the shortage of staff will have an effect on future summers.

 

“I don’t think we are going to be able to open both facilities fully because every year we need to certify so many guards and have so many guards that return, and with this hit I don’t see us having enough,” Bachmann said.

COVID-19 has affected city pools across the state. Here’s how some of them are reacting: 

  • Seward Dowding pool is scheduled to open on June 19.
  • Norfolk’s outdoor Liberty Bell Pool will not be opening, but the local water park called AquaVenture will open on June 20.
  • Grand Island’s Lincoln Pool is scheduled to open July 1, but Island Oasis Water Park will remain closed.
  • Lincoln was planning to open five of its outdoor public pools on June 15.
  • Omaha plans to open five outdoor pools on July 1. The five pools are Roanoke, Elmwood, Hitchcock, Miller and Zorinsky. 
  • Kearney’s two pools, Harmon Park and Centennial Park, are scheduled to open sometime in late June.
  • North Platte’s Cody Park Swimming Pool has yet to release information about opening the pool this season.
  • Fremont’s Ronin Pool was planning to open June 15 for swim lessons and adult lap swimming. Open swim may be available after July 1.
  • Beatrice opened Beatrice Big Blue Water Park June 5.

Some of the communities that won’t open their pools this summer include Hastings, Scottsbluff and Pawnee City. 

Not all of Nebraska’s city waterparks and pools struggled to find staff this summer. 

Hastings’ waterpark known as Aquacourt decided on June 4 to stay closed for the summer because of concern over social distancing requirements. 

 

“The reason for why we made the decision back on last Thursday is because our staff was faithful to us, and they were hanging on. And I felt like we could not continue to delay the decision for them,” said Jeff Hassentab, director of parks and recreation for Hastings.

At some pools, staffing levels have been unaffected. 

Norfolk’s Aquaventure will open this summer. Norfolk’s Parks and Recreation Director Pat Mrsny said the park was able to open due to about 95% of last season’s lifeguards returning. People will be able to enjoy the park’s two big slides and wave pool June 20. 

Lincoln will open some of its outdoor pools. Kent Stiles, program coordinator for Lincoln, said that they had too many guards this summer since they are only opening five public outdoor pools.

 “We were hoping we could keep them all working, but it just wasn’t the case,” Stiles said.