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Some Florida HOAs won’t reopen pools because of COVID-19

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 5/10/2021 Lois K. Solomon, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
a fountain in a park: One of the closed swimming pools at Boca Fontana, in Boca Raton, are seen Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Despite the fact that residents have continued to pay dues, the pools and other facilites at the development remain shuttered. © Joe Cavaretta / South Florida/Sun Sentinel One of the closed swimming pools at Boca Fontana, in Boca Raton, are seen Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Despite the fact that residents have continued to pay dues, the pools and other facilites at the development remain shuttered.

Let us swim!

That’s the cry from some South Florida homeowners whose community pools remain locked down even though Florida’s governor has suspended all local restrictions related to COVID-19.

The two pools in Boca Fontana, a neighborhood off Lyons Road in West Boca, closed in March 2020 and their gates remain shuttered. The clubhouse, tennis courts and basketball courts also are off limits indefinitely because of the virus.

The Knightsbridge neighborhood in Coral Springs has also had a closed pool since COVID commenced. Resident Matt Sampson said his kids, ages 10, 12 and 16, are craving a dunk in the water.

“We moved here for the neighborhood pool,” said Sampson, 43, a Citrix software director and Knightsbridge resident for six years. “The frustrating part is no one has identified the criteria they will use to reopen. Meanwhile, we are still paying our homeowners’ association dues.”

Public pools, operated by cities and counties in South Florida, have mostly resumed operations after initial closings last year, and so have the amenities owned by many homeowners’ associations, such as parks and tennis courts. But some are keeping their pools and clubhouses padlocked or are restricting entry, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says swimming is a COVID-safe activity.

These closures have infuriated some residents, who often take out their anger on the volunteer boards who run their associations. With summer approaching, the homeowners want a place to cool off, while the volunteers say they have a legal obligation to maintain the safety of the community.

Pools and other facilities remain padlocked in several South Florida neighborhoods and condo buildings, including Rivercrest in downtown Fort Lauderdale and Coral Key in Margate. At the Villas at Meadow Lakes in Deerfield Beach, resident Eleni Athanasopoulos said residents are still not allowed in the pool or gym.

“It’s 90 degrees outside and I would like to swim with my son,” said Athanasopoulos, who has a 2-year-old.

Sunrise residents have written several letters over the past two months to city officials, asking why pools in their neighborhoods, including Waterside Village and Southwind Cove, are not reopening. The city can’t help them because the pools are governed by homeowners’ association rules; Broward issued several pool- and clubhouse-related restrictions last year, but rescinded them in the following months.

Other neighborhoods have opened their facilities with an assortment of limitations. At Valencia Falls in West Delray, residents can swim but they have to register in advance and stay in an assigned lane.

“There’s been a lot of pressure from both sides” about how to reopen community amenities safely, Valencia Falls resident Larry Weisman said. “Some people say, ‘Open up everything.’ Most people have been vaccinated, but the limits have continued.”

There have been many confusing and overlapping orders from county and state authorities during COVID-19 about whether public and private spaces should be open or closed. Most recently, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended all local emergency orders related to COVID-19, which many businesses interpreted as a reason to stop enforcing mask-wearing policies.

But there are many facets to reopening post-COVID, including how to operate properties controlled by homeowners’ associations. A new state law that protects businesses and non-profits from COVID-19-related injury lawsuits prevents residents from suing if they contract the virus on association land, said Sheri Scarborough, owner of Superior Association Management in Boca Raton. She said all 11 South Florida community pools her management company operates are open.

Still, there are many other factors to consider, said West Palm Beach attorney Michael Gelfand, who advises several homeowners’ groups.

He said the opening of pools and clubhouses could serve as encouragement to residents to start gathering in groups, which is how COVID-19 often spreads.

“How do you say no to a birthday party with 30 people?” Gelfand said. “You are pushing decision-making into the hands of volunteers who are not trained to make these decisions. I see these volunteers getting eaten alive and it’s been a horrendous situation for them.”

Palm Beach County’s public pools reopened a year ago after a two-month closure, said Jimmy Davis, director of the county’s aquatic program, which operates seven pool complexes. He said visitors wear masks upon arrival and at the concession stand, and the venues remove chairs that encourage people to socialize. The county also keeps pool capacities at 50%, closes off every other shower head and has stepped up its cleaning routines.

“The big thing is sanitation,” he said. “That budget has gone up.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has extensive instructions on how to keep pool areas clean during COVID-19, including sanitizing shared objects at least once a day, washing towels at warm temperatures and ensuring good indoor air quality, including using the highest quality filters, exhaust fans and ultraviolet germicidal irradiation.

Neighborhoods that don’t have these gadgets must figure out how to reopen with what they can afford. At Boca Fontana, the association posted a note at the pool that says in part: “The Board feels that there is a tremendous liability for the Association as a whole to allow unfettered access to the community pool.”

To open safely, the note says the pools’ bathrooms would have to be “cleaned regularly throughout the day (which could mean every couple/few hours with some attorneys suggesting it could mean after every use) and ... a staff member must be present at the pool to enforce the restrictions of social distancing, wearing masks, wiping down pool handles, no shower use, etc.”

Boca Raton attorney Guy Shir represents Boca Fontana but said he would only speak generally about the COVID issues facing homeowners’ associations. He said Florida’s new liability law may not fully protect businesses and non-profits from COVID-related lawsuits, and insurance policies may not save associations from paying damages. He said a successful lawsuit could result in financial assessments to be paid by each homeowner.

“Then there are the expenses of cleaning and governing social distancing,” Shir said. “These expenses are not necessarily budgeted.”

Boca Fontana homeowner Eric Cohen said besides the community’s two pools, the 307-home neighborhood has a basketball court, two tennis courts, hot tub and clubhouse that remain closed. Cohen, 50, a financial advisor, said he has twin 6-year-old daughters who would like to swim in the pool this summer. He has been sending letters to government officials and organized a petition drive to push a restart.

“We’re seeing other facilities reopen,” Cohen said. “We’re still paying full dues and not getting what we are paying for.”

Resident Lewis Berkowitz, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years, agrees.

“I realize someone could get COVID at the pool,’ he said. “But the risk seems extremely low.”

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