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In pandemic, private pools at a premium

Brown's Pools employee Penny Isbell cleans one of their display pools at their Dallas, Georgia, location July 31, 2020.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Brown's Pools employee Penny Isbell cleans one of their display pools at their Dallas, Georgia, location July 31, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

In late June, with her son’s birthday just around the corner, Lisa Adler was frantically searching for a pool. The pandemic had forced many public and community pools to open late, if they opened at all. “I was desperate to find a place to take the kids where they could swim and cool off,” said Adler of Grant Park. Then a friend told her about Swimply, the app known as the Airbnb for swimming pools.

A few days later, for $45 per hour, she and her family were splashing around in the 40-by-20-foot backyard pool at a private home in Dawsonville. The pool had a diving board, slide and a shed full of pool toys. They had so much fun she booked again a few weeks later, but availability was limited. “I don’t know if it was booked by customers or (blacked out) by the owner, but there weren’t as many free days,” said Adler, who rented the same pool for a third time this week.

In metro Atlanta, summer is synonymous with lazy days spent lounging poolside, but with social distancing and safety concerns induced by a global pandemic, Summer 2020 has brought a different set of expectations. Hitting the community pool requires extra planning and precautions. For those who consider public pools too risky, COVID-19 has spurred them to rent or buy pools at unprecedented rates.

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“We have had triple the amount of calls than we had at this time last year,” said Haleigh Dover, who works at Georgia Classic Pool, her family’s Canton-based pool design and construction company. “A lot of (customers) know they won’t be getting anything anytime soon, but because they are hearing the virus will come back and they won’t be taking vacations, they are preparing for next summer as well.”

In May, the state Department of Public Health issued seven pages of guidelines for public pools to reopen. Most of the guidance focused on social distancing, sanitation and preventing sick people from swimming. Health experts for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of recreational waters, but some pools, including membership-only pools and pools operated by apartment complexes or HOAs, have opted to remain closed.

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Adler felt renting a private pool was a safe alternative. The Swimply app, which launched last summer, pairs owners of private pools with anyone who wants to swim. Once registered, app users can book pool time at homes across the metro area for prices starting at $30 per hour.

Before her visit, Adler messaged the Dawsonville pool owner to ask about COVID-19 precautions. The pool came with a private bathroom, and she had zero interaction with anyone outside of her family during the three-hour pool visit, she said.

For pool owners, the pandemic has offered an unexpected opportunity to fill a growing demand.

Julie Harris was surprised by the number of neighbors and strangers who wanted to use the recently renovated 1970s-style saltwater pool at her home in Avondale Estates.

Initially, the requests came from people who wanted to have birthday parties or celebrations, but she quickly turned down anything that involved too many people. Then she began getting requests from families, including one couple that was so concerned about COVID-19 they requested information on water testing and pictures of the filtration system.

Though she has never advertised her pool for use, everyone seemed to seek her out. “When people started showing interest, I thought maybe I can make a little money and help the community too,” said Harris, who believes the pandemic will lead to more pool owners in metro Atlanta.

Brown's Pools, whose showroom on Hiram-Acworth Highway in Dallas, Georgia, is shown here, has been receiving lots of calls about above-ground pools.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Brown's Pools, whose showroom on Hiram-Acworth Highway in Dallas, Georgia, is shown here, has been receiving lots of calls about above-ground pools. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Spring and summer is busy season for pool installations. Since January, there has been a 17% year-over-year increase in new swimming pool construction in the metro Atlanta area, according to data published in July from Home Builders Weekly. More than 1,300 new pool permits are on record from January through June with the greatest number in Cherokee, Cobb and Fulton counties.

At this time last year, Georgia Classic Pool had about 20 appointments for in-ground pools booked two weeks out, Dover said. As of late July, they have 110 appointments, and the three pool designers are booked through September. The average pool size requested is 16 by 34 feet, which starts at $80,000, while more extensive designs with waterfall features and outdoor living spaces are in the range of $120,000. Once the design and permitting are complete, the pool only takes about 90 to 120 days to install. Most clients are willing to wait, Dover said.

Rebecca Shivers’ dreams of a summer spent poolside are fading away. She and her husband had already considered installing an in-ground pool at their Kirkwood home when the pandemic came along and sped up their plans, Shivers said. They had not anticipated the time and money it would take. “The cost of the pool is one thing, that is something you desire to absorb, but the cost of permitting means you have to give up vacations for the next few years just to pay for permits,” Shivers said.

Permits in some cities including Atlanta require site reviews that meet certain architectural and engineering standards and can cost several thousand dollars to obtain and take weeks to complete. Shivers would also have to remove trees, which would add even more costs to the project. “The process you need to go through is costly and time-consuming, and it would not be able to happen this year,” said Shivers, so they dropped the idea.

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Above-ground pools are a less costly option, but the wait time for those has also increased. When retailers began to run out of a popular brand of above-ground pools in April, Debbie Brown of Brown’s Pools and Spas said their four locations in metro Atlanta were flooded with calls. “You had 20 to 30 people calling per day per store asking do you have pools?” she said. “We would tell them yes, then they ask how much and when we said $5,000, the line would go dead,” Brown said. After a few of those calls, they let callers know right away that their above-ground pools, unlike those sold at mass retailers, are designed to last for a decade or more.

For the past few years, the company has sold about 120 above-ground pools each year, she said. This year, they will be well over 200 if they could keep them in stock. Backlogs in materials and plant shutdowns due to COVID-19 have left them with a limited supply of pools to meet the increased demand, she said. They have installations — which take about a half day — scheduled into September, which is usually when the market slows down. This year, however, that may not happen. “We are buying everything we can for next year,” Brown said. “We want to sell pools.”