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Indoor rec centers carry on with COVID mitigation

Elizabeth Earl

The Kenai Peninsula is one of the best places in the world for outdoor recreation, but sometimes the weather is less than great and the lakes are too cold to swim in. Usually, there are community pools and indoor recreation facilities to help with that, but like most things, the coronavirus pandemic has interrupted that.

Most of the pools in the central peninsula area are operated by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, as they’re inside the schools. Because of the pandemic, the schools have been closed to the public since mid-March, but the district reopened the pools on a reservation basis in early July. But rising case numbers triggered the district’s “high-risk” scenario starting on Monday, leading it to close the pools again until cases come back down.

The only pool open right now is the one at the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area in Nikiski. Recreation director Rachel Parra said it’s still operating on a reservation-only system and people are mostly following the rules.

"Everybody’s just thrilled that the facility’s open, right? So all are complying," she said. "We’ve had a few bumps in the road where people (say), ‘Gosh, I want to get in at this time, but I can’t, I want to shower here.’ There’s been difficulty scheduling things probably more than anything, or it might be full because the reservation’s already been made. But for the most part, I would say 99 percent of the people that come through the door are very happy to have it open, take showers, use the pools, get a little bit of exercise, so overall I think folks are happy."

The North Peninsula Recreation Center is also open, but again on a limited basis. The staff is busy cleaning as they go.

Parra says they’ve gotten creative over the summer as well, especially with more outdoor programming. There’s a biking club that meets on Wednesday nights at 6 p.m., and biking outside makes social distancing easy, and the summer camp activities have changed a little.

"We capped the numbers (at the summer camp) and limited it and got creative with how we’re going to mitigate, social distancing, and supplies for the kids, and we still do the health screening," she said. "Everything is still in place, but we’ve become more creative with our programming. Our emphasis for the summer camp has been to do every activity outside that we possibly can do. Of course, weather sometimes dictates otherwise, but it’s been pretty nice weather, so we’ve done just about all of our activities outside for the kids, which opens up the opportunity for social distancing, fresh air and great sunlight and everything else that kind of goes along with it."

The North Peninsula Recreation Service Area staff is working on plans for later in the year, but Parra said things are constantly changing.

Over in Soldotna, the Regional Sports Complex is quieter than usual. Pickleball is the only activity they have going on inside the sports complex this summer—the racquetball and wallyball courts are still shut down. Soldotna Parks and Recreation assistant director Joel Todd said pickleball and the free weekly Yoga in the Park on Thursday nights are the only recreational offerings the city parks department has going on right now.

"Most of what we do is support other user groups, other nonprofits and businesses in the community, so that’s been interesting," he said. "A lot of the activities festivals that happen at Soldotna Creek Park have been cancelled or moved or delayed. That’s what a lot of our activities are. Our winter activities are where we get inside and start offering a lot more. Like our public skates, learn to skate programs, Community Schools, community education stuff. This time of year, it’s outside, a lot of fishing and camping."

Like Nikiski, the plans for the sports complex later in the fall are still tentative. Todd said they’re still on track to have the ice rink in place by September, but it may be mostly for group rental and use rather than public skating.

"What it looks like once winter rolls around and what we’re able to offer and how we’re able to offer it could be a little bit different," he said. "There’s a lot of other rinks in the state currently operating under some COVID mitigation, and finding some success and struggles in that process. So we’re learning from all of their attempts and so when we open up late September, we’re able to have a good system in place."

In Kenai, the main recreation center is operated by the Boys and Girls Club of the Kenai Peninsula. They’re running it under a pretty tight mitigation plan, with a reservation-only system and capacity limits. Executive director Rachel Chaffee said they’ve hired on additional staff to constantly clean and only allow groups of family members to use facilities like the gym and wallyball courts together. Because their policies are built stringently and in line with state recommendations, she said they don’t have a specific trigger point for closing and are still in line with the strictest mandates the state put out in the spring.

Kenai hopes to have its Summer Ice program on at the Multi-Purpose Facility running by August 1, said Parks and Recreation Director Bob Frates. The Sterling Community Center is open as well.

Click here for schedules for the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area, Kenai Recreation Center, and Sterling Community Center.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at

Elizabeth Earl is the news reporter/evening host for summer 2021 at KDLL. She is a high school teacher, with a background writing for the Peninsula Clarion and has been a freelance contributor to several publications in Alaska.
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