Splash pad at Memorial Park

The wait is almost over.

Among several decisions made by Litchfield City Council Monday night, perhaps none was more anticipated than the opening of the splash pad at Lake Ripley.

Despite lingering concerns about the spread of coronavirus because of the close contact that’s likely to develop at the facility, the City Council unanimously approved opening the splash pad as soon as possible. And that could be yet this week — in time for at least part of what is forecast to be the hottest week of the year to this point.

“People want it open,” Council Member Betty Allen said in the conversation leading up to the vote. “We should trust the people.”

Council Member Ron Dingmann agreed, saying that “It’s a point where I don’t believe we can control everybody’s behavior. Most people are going to stay their distance. I really think we need to put the trust back into the people.”

Reopening the splash pad has been a hotly debated topic on social media and at City Council meetings since the weather turned warmer. Many social media commenters demanded that the splash pad, a public amenity, be opened immediately, while city administration urged a more cautious approach.

Two weeks ago, Administrator Dave Cziok told the City Council, “There are times in which there are a lot of people crammed into that splash pad. That is not a safe environment.”

The City Council agreed at that point, but the drum beat of public support for reopening seemed to influence a change Monday.

During a long discussion that covered multiple COVID-19 topics, Cziok offered council members three options in regard to the splash pad:

  • Keep it closed.
  • Open it but attempt to educate users about the importance of social distancing while relying on self-policing to maintain user safety.
  • “Fence and referee,” establishing a hard perimeter around the pad and positioning a monitor at the splash pad to ensure against overcrowding.

Council Member Vern Loch Jr. was the first to respond to the options, saying he supported keeping the splash pad closed. He expressed concern that social distancing would not be observed, and also mentioned that as more things are opened up, numbers of COVID-19 cases “are starting to climb.”

Council Member Sara Miller also expressed concern about opening the splash pad, though she said she understood public opinion was against her.

“I firmly believe we have to open it,” Council Member Darlene Kotelnicki said. “Open it up and monitor it. If we have problems, we deal with it. I trust our parents.”

And what if users don’t observe social distancing guidelines? Council Member Eric Mathwig wondered that, and asked if the splash pad could be shut down if “things get out of hand.”

Cziok answered that he wasn’t sure how he or other city staff would make that determination. Complaints are likely, he said, as people drive by “and take offense” at a large group of people and some of them “standing too close.”

“I’m worried we’re going to get stuck in a tight spot,” Cziok said, and be unsure how to handle it. He offered a reward-and-punishment system in which the splash pad could be turned off for 24 hours after a complaint was lodged, as a way to teach the importance of social distancing.

“But that may take all summer before people learn,” he said.

Kotelnicki, however, said she believed that “we will have conscientious parents out there,” and she cautioned her fellow members not to “make a mountain out of a mole hill.”

City staff will develop an emergency response plan for the splash pad, which will include creating and placing signs to remind users of social distancing and other health guidelines to lessen the possibility of coronavirus spread.

Barring an unforeseen mechanical issue, the splash pad could be up and running within a day or two, Cziok said, but the response plan could take a bit longer.

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