Coronavirus

Shutdown Stories: Aquaboggan

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Aquaboggan in Saco was forced to close in late August after receiving a cease-and-desist order from the Saco Police. The order was issued for violating Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order that limits the size of outdoor gatherings to 100 people.

Saco Police visited the facility on August 28 to deliver the order citing concerns about the potential for COVID-19 transmission due to the number of people allowed inside the park. According to the Press Herald, a code enforcement officer for the city of Saco inspected the park on August 3, estimating more than 1,200 people were allowed inside. The city’s police chief, Jack Clements, told the paper that the park “routinely has more than 100 guests in the park,” in violation of the governor’s executive order.

“The COVID-19 virus is deadly, and it can be readily spread through large gatherings. Having 1,200 persons gather at a waterpark poses a significant public health danger, and I trust that you do not want to see Aquaboggan be the source of an outbreak,” Clements wrote in the order.

After the order was delivered, the park took to social media to notify its customers of their closure for the remainder of the season.

“Due to strict and inconsistent state regulations, it is no longer possible for us to remain open while remaining in compliance with the changes in guidelines. We firmly disagree that some of these regulations should apply to Aquaboggan, staff and guest safety has always been the number one priority and we will always place public health above profit. We plan to confront the inconsistency of the guidelines by working to create policy change rather than operate against them, but unfortunately this takes time,” the post reads. The full post can be read below:

According to the park’s owner, Wesley Hurst, the state never made clear which set of regulations the park was required to abide by in order to open its doors this summer. The park felt it should be treated as a beach or state park given its attractions span a 12-acre parcel of land.

The state wanted the park to abide by the governor’s restrictions on outdoor gatherings, which would limit capacity to 100 people. With 40 or so employees on duty regularly, the park could only have about 60 patrons inside it at one time – a losing endeavor when daily labor costs approach $6,000, according to park operations manager Ethan Mongue.

Aquaboggan initially planned to open to the public on June 27 but had to wait until July 1 to conform with the governor’s phased economic reopening plan. Hurst said it was his understanding the park was limited to 25% occupancy, or what he and his team estimated to be between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

The business followed all of the state’s COVID-19 safety measures. Wearing a mask was required when social distancing was not possible, including while waiting in line at the snack bar or visiting the gift shop or bathrooms. Sanitation stations were set up throughout the park with signs about social distancing, wearing masks and exercising proper hygiene. Hurst said he also purchased backpacks that spray disinfectants, which were used to clean picnic tables, tubes, go-karts and bumper boats between each use.

Not long after, the park began receiving complaints from the public about not practicing social distancing. To be clear, the complaints did not come from patrons or employees, but rather the general public driving by the park and not understanding what safety measures were being practiced inside. Aquaboggan provided to The Maine Wire copies of the complaints and inspections it received between July 1 and August 28.

Of the numerous inspections conducted at Aquaboggan, the park received no critical complaints. In fact, the inspectors and code enforcement officers who visited the park noted that COVID-19 safety guidelines were being followed. The only issue the park had was the number of people it was allowing to visit at one time. Under the governor’s executive order, outdoor gatherings must adhere to limits of 1,000 square feet of space for every five people or 100 people, whichever is less.

At the 12-acre park there is approximately 522,720 square feet of space, or 5,227.2 square feet of space per person when limited to 100 people. This far exceeds the provision of 200 square feet per person in outdoor spaces and represents an allotment of space far in excess of the space a patron would receive at any surrounding business, indoors or outdoors.

The park’s first complaint came on July 19 when someone filed a Suspected Non-Compliance Report against the park. The alleged noncompliance was for not adhering to social distancing or rules. The complainant said “The park is visibly packed with patrons unmasked and shoulder to shoulder while waiting for attractions.”

The City of Saco’s code enforcement officer visited the park on July 21 and stated in his report that “chairs and picnic tables are spread out fairly well. There’s not a lot of signage in the park so I advise management that they should add additional signage about social distancing and wearing masks when social distancing is not possible. There is good signage near the snack bar and people were mostly observing 6 foot distances. Most employees were social distancing or wearing masks if social distancing was not possible.” The report goes on to add that there “were no huge crowds.”

The city’s code enforcement officer visited the park again on August 3. The officer said the staff he came in contact with were wearing masks or face shields, but not all patrons were wearing them at the appropriate time, particularly those waiting in line outside the park to get in.

He also noted the business appears to “have a good program once you get into the park but again, it comes down to patrons either knowingly or unknowingly ignoring the rules.” He added that he did observe an instance of an individual waiting in line at the snack bar without a mask and once he pointed it out to management they “addressed it at once.”

Two more inspections were performed on Aug. 25 and 26. During the final inspection before the park was ordered to close, the inspector wrote that they walked through the park and “did not note any apparent issues with social distancing/mask use/excessive numbers of people at any given pool.”

It should be noted that people are constantly doused in chlorinated water when visiting Aquaboggan. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is “not aware of any scientific reports of the virus that causes COVID-19 spreading to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds. Plus, proper operation of public pools, hot tubs, and water playgrounds … and disinfection of the water (with chlorine or bromine) should inactivate the virus.”

During a segment on the WGAN Morning News on Aug. 31, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said “there has not been an outbreak associated with Aquaboggan.” He also said the inspectors observed people crowded together, which runs contrary to the actual inspection reports reviewed by The Maine Wire.

“They began putting pressure on us to close but couldn’t find any violations of the governor’s safety rules,” Hurst said.

After receiving so many complaints, the park’s operators sought to arrange a meeting with Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development. Mongue said Johnson visited the park and found nothing wrong from a safety standpoint, but noted Aquaboggan was still out of compliance in regards to outdoor gathering limitations.

Mongue added that Johnson said she had never made exceptions for a business when it comes to the governor’s safety guidelines and would plead their case to the administration, but did not expect a favorable result.

“Our argument against the policy was that places like state parks were open with unlimited capacity, and we have just as much space,” Mongue said.

“If you can have thousands of people at the beach or a state park, how are those people any safer than what we are doing at the waterpark?” Mongue said.

Mongue requested the state allow the park to remain open until Monday, Aug. 31 so they could sell the remainder of the food they had on hand. Shortly after that request was made,  police arrived on scene to deliver the cease-and-desist order and shut down the park.

“If what we were doing is so dangerous, how does the virus know that people in public spaces are off limits, but people in private spaces are not? At the end of the day, why can’t we be granted the same flexibility?” Mongue said.

Now, 95 mostly young Mainers find themselves out of a job. And for what? The appearance of safety. Given the vast amount of space, the presence of chlorinated water and the safety measures practiced by Aquaboggan, it posed no real health and safety threat to the public. It operated for two months outside of the governor’s limits on outdoor gatherings and is not associated with a single confirmed case of COVID-19 in Maine.

When the state finally enforced the 100 person limit on outdoor gatherings, the park was effectively forced to close. They could not run a profit by having 60 patrons in the park at one time, and when coupled with the costs incurred to bring the business into compliance with the state’s COVID-19 safety rules, remaining open was simply not an option.

“[The state] told the public in the media that we could be open but gave us no realistic option to do so,” Mongue said.

About Jacob Posik

Jacob Posik, of Turner, is the director of communications at Maine Policy Institute and the editor of The Maine Wire. He formerly served as a policy analyst at Maine Policy. Posik can be reached at jposik@mainepolicy.org.

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