Diving in to one of South Auckland’s free pools tomorrow will be a long-awaited respite for many who have struggled with the city’s arduous 107-day lockdown.
As temperatures soar over summer, many South Aucklanders are familiar with the feeling of being slowly pan-fried as they meander across a shadeless town centre car park.
This is because the concrete jungles that are Māngere, Ōtāhuhu and Ōtara not only have the lowest tree coverage of any area in Auckland, but are also a good 20 minutes from most of the city’s swimmable beaches.
Mother of two Michelle Sigley says not being able to access the pools has been one of the harder aspects of this latest lockdown.
“I have a 13-month-old and a nearly three-year-old and it’s just one of those things we do literally every weekend and so we’ve been pretty gutted having them shut.”
Another who can’t wait is Māngere resident Mace Thompson. As a single mother of four, “trying to stay on top of things” in lockdown has been particularly challenging.
“We’re all starting to get pretty sick of each other now so I am so excited [about the pools reopening],” she says. “I’m also a little bit nervous but I just want to go back to some normality, really. We love the water and we just love those pools in particular. It’s somewhere free to go which is safe for my kids to play around in.”
Seventy-seven-year-old Mulipola Sioeli Mulipola is a regular at his local pool’s spa, and he often meets with a group of retired men who all have their share of aches and pains.
“The pools are the only thing that connects and brings us all together despite your age or race,” he says.
And it’s not just pool users who are hanging out for tomorrow’s reopening. Māngere’s Moana-Nui-ā-Kiwa Pools and Leisure centre manager Waitangi Mika says his team can’t wait to get back to work, especially given some of the non-Covid-related disruptions they’ve experienced earlier this year. On the first weekend of January, a heating and air conditioning duct broke off the ceiling and fell into one of the pools in the middle of the night, resulting in the centre being partially closed for almost six months.
“It’s been a very challenging year,” Mika says.
“Basically from the first weekend in January up until Queen’s Birthday weekend we were closed, which was about 22 weeks. So everyone’s really keen and excited to get back into it, as we’ve been away for so long.”
Mika says along with a vaccination requirement for over-12s, customers will need to practise social distancing and there will be a 100-person limit at the centre.
“There’s a ratio of two to three lifeguards per 100 people. But at the end of the day, we’ll just have to make a call from a health and safety perspective to make sure things are happening right.”
Michelle Sigley’s pool of choice is the “awesome” swimming complex in Ōtāhuhu.
“I just really, really love that pool,” the Māngere Bridge resident says.
“They have this smaller area for little kids, with a slide and fountains. They could spend hours there in just a few centimetres of water. There’s also a splash pad, a playground and the library is right outside as well. Plus it’s free to go there.”
The free entry is particular to just the four public pools in the Ōtara-Papatoetoe and Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local board areas, after both boards decided to charge a targeted rate to remove any barriers for those wanting a dip. The decision came in 2013, after the council at the time added a uniform fee for all adult pool users across the city’s council pools. According to documents released under the Official Information Act, the targeted rate currently nets the Ōtara-Papatoetoe and Māngere-Ōtāhuhu local boards $576,918 and $536,712 respectively, and based on visitor rates prior to Covid, this saves families roughly $2 a head per person.
Ōtara-Papatoetoe Local Board chair Apulu Reece Autagavaia says keeping the pools free has proved to be a worthwhile policy.
“Given how beaches are further away and there aren’t any private pools set up in our area, the council pools are probably the most accessible way for our kids and families to be able to do swimming activities,” he says.
“And because we know that whole families need to be able to swim together, making it free is one less barrier for people.”
But Autagavaia also wants people to be mindful of the risks Covid poses, particularly for families with underlying health issues.
“A lot of people will see that the rules are relaxing, but people shouldn’t see that as a green light. We still need to assess our own circumstances, whether it’s safe for us to go, so if your family is vulnerable, have a good think about it.”
Sigley agrees that there will be some nervousness about returning to public facilities but she’s also relieved the reopening of the pools is a sign of some return to normality.
“Given we’ve had more clusters out here, there will be some who are quite hesitant, but we’re a double-jabbed household and Covid is just going to be part of our lives for a while yet, so the best thing we can do is get on with it.”