A relaxing day at the beach or river is a centrepiece of Caribbean lifestyle, but the outbreak of the covid19 pandemic has caused families to confine themselves to small gatherings at home on warm weekend afternoons as beach of river excursions remained closed to the public last March.
While water parks would have been an ideal solution to growing public boredom, they were also closed as part of the halt on non-essential activities.
On September 24, the Prime Minister announced that after almost a year and a half of being closed, water parks along with restaurants, casinos, bars and gyms will be allowed to operate as safe zones on October 11, but must adhere to strict regulations or both patrons and operators risk facing hefty fines.
While the decision to reopen has been welcomed by operators, the stipulations on their activities have forced water park owners to push back their reopening to the end of October to give them enough time to tackle issues of maintenance and address several challenges such as getting their equipment ready for use.
Sunday Newsday spoke with John Aboud chairman of Fouraime Enterprises Ltd, the parent company of Five Islands Water and Amusement Park, in Chaguaramas, who explained that while he was grateful for the opportunity to reopen, his water park will not be ready for business on Monday.
Aboud, who opened the water park on June 2020 after almost five years of construction, said reopening a multi-million dollar amusement facility was not as simple as turning back on the taps.
"We have a lot of systems to test, a lot of health and safety issues to double-check so we are hoping the water park will be opened towards the latter part of October which is about two weeks or so from the 11th, so our drop-dead date is the last weekend in October for the entire facility to be opened."
Park owners and families received a brief relief for Easter vacation when water parks were partially open to the public, but this was short-lived when the state of emergency was announced on May 16.
The lure of beaches and rivers among some people cannot be overstated as some of the more intrepid limers risked running afoul of the public health regulations to take a dip, leading to people being arrested and charged.
Sunday Newsday also spoke to Harripersad Ragoonanan, the owner of Harry's Water Park, Tabaquite, who said he had a lot of work ahead of him in preparing for reopening.
"We're still doing maintenance work and so on. Also all of our workers have only received the first dose of their vaccine and we want our staff to be 100 per cent vaccinated.
"We're looking at the 16th of October but I'm not sure if we may be able to complete it in time."
Both Aboud and Ragoonanan outlined the problems facing their businesses and their strategies to overcome these issues.
Family fun without the entire family
In keeping with the regulations, safe zones will only be accessible to people who are fully vaccinated and have their official vaccination cards to prove it.
As such, children below the age of 12 who are not eligible to receive a vaccine would not be able to visit safe zones.
Aboud says while children in this age bracket does not make up the majority of his customer base, the exclusion of children, in general, is a serious concern to any business which is marketed as a family-friendly location.
"I'm wondering whether or not people will leave the children under 12 at home and bring their teenagers, so we don't know how that will play out.
"A large percentage of the people who come to us are over the age of 12, about 80 per cent of our patrons but the question is would the 20 per cent affect the 80 per cent, because people can't leave their children home alone? So that's the only anomaly in our mind.
"The ones that come are vaccinated, the ones at home are unvaccinated and they end back up in the same house. I'm not a doctor but I don't understand the dynamics of this."
Aboud also raised some concern as the state of emergency and curfew remains in effect.
He said while the curfew period was shortened between 10 pm to 5 am, it did not cater to the different aspects of the dining and entertainment industry.
For his part Ragoonanan says while he was also concerned about the effect this policy could have on his already limited customer base, he also felt it was a harsh measure to enforce.
"The motto of Harry's Water Park is being a place that brings families closer together and we pride ourselves in being able to do just that, not with some home and others coming to us.
"If you want to go somewhere and you can't get to go, you know how sad you will be? And you do things to make children happy."
Money down the pool drain?
Even when they are not open to the public, the machines at water parks need to be turned on and serviced on a fairly frequent basis to prevent them from falling into disrepair.
While this allows technicians to prevent small mechanical problems from becoming larger, more costly complications later on, it isn't cheap to maintain such large pieces of equipment.
Aboud estimates he has had to spend almost $20 million for the upkeep of equipment, cleaning chemicals for his pools and the park's electricity bill between last March to present.
"TTEC has a system where if you open a business and you need a certain amount of current they have to do certain works they will charge you for 75 per cent of the current you should have used whether you use it or not.
"So for the last 20 months they are charging us for 75 per cent of the current we would have been using if the water park was functioning.
"We're paying $300,000 per month on a product that we cannot use, not that we don't want to use it but because we cannot use it."
Ragoonanan also admits that keeping up with the costs of maintaining his park has been a challenge.
He said even while the park was closed he has had to spend about $50,000 to $60,000 for chlorine for his pools.
"Right now these bills alone I have for the park is about $1 million and that's just our bills for TTEC and the chlorine that I have outstanding.
"For TTEC alone I have $160,000, plus for this month coming again and so to get this whole thing operational might cost me about $2.5 million to get it painted, cleaned up and clean out the pools."
If the cost of maintenance wasn't difficult enough, Ragoonanan says the park had no means of recouping expenses as it remained closed, but he still found means of paying his staff.
"It was real tough, right now we're doing gardening and all sorts of things just to pay workers."
No cutting corners
Despite being saddled with heavy financial costs and the difficulties of operating within these restrictions, the only way out of their troubles is to work through them.
But even before the covid19 pandemic, water parks and public pools had their own safety protocols to follow, something Aboud says would not be compromised when reopening.
One of the reasons for the later date of reopening he says is to give his lifeguards enough time to be re-certified, something he takes very seriously.
"The minute I am open for business, I need 79 lifeguards.
"I may not need all 79 in the first minute of reopening but certainly by the second hour when the place starts to get more active and more people come in but you need 79 lifeguards to operate. That is critical."
On the issue of vaccination, Aboud says most of his staff are fully vaccinated and the few that are not have no interaction with the public.
He says while a recruitment drive is underway, a pre-requisite for applicants would be to get vaccinated, as for staff who refuse to get vaccinated, he has a solution in mind.
"I can't send you home but what I will do is the park opens to the public at 10 am, so from 7 am we will have unvaccinated staff coming out to do cleaning and the usual daily routine.
"Unvaccinated staff will come from 7 am to 9 am that's what I have. If you want it, take it, if not get vaccinated, or then come in the afternoon to clean up for two hours, so they're working and unvaccinated but they're not working while the park is open."
For Ragoonanan maintaining customer and staff safety is a top priority as he says he is prepared to invest in more equipment to better regulate patrons.
"I'm trying to import one of the machines where someone can walk through that can test temperature and sanitise the entire body so when we can bring that in it would be easier for us to regulate people."
Things can get better
While there are a lot of challenges to work around, there is the hope that the situation will eventually improve, either in an increase in the number of people getting vaccinated or an easing of the restrictions.
Aboud says while the early half of the reopening may be the most trying in terms of balancing business with health restrictions, he anticipates that as time passes the interaction can be more streamlined.
"I suspect over the coming month to six weeks, these safe zones will be refined.
"I'm looking at it as a start in the right direction and over the next week or two they can tweak that or fine-tune this.
"This safe zone is not the end all."
Aboud said in order to meet these challenges, his business and others had to find ways to adapt, which would include the introduction of new packages and promotions for customers.
He noted that creative marketing tools and strategies would be crucial in bringing customers back to the parks.
"Some specials and giveaways will have to be put out there and hopefully we may not need it because the pent-up demand is so large but you want to welcome people back."
For now, water parks like many other businesses must readjust their strategies to keep up with the demands of a vaccinated but fatigued public.
Unlike other businesses, however, they must find new ways of keeping their attractions fresh in the face of mounting costs and restrictions.