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With COVID closing pools, some Bloomington-Normal families seek their own

Pantagraph - 7/11/2020

Jul. 11--NORMAL -- To Eric, Tiffany, Peyton and Colton Smith, being a part of the COVID-19-induced trend of people buying backyard pools has meant more than quality family time.

It's meant a safe zone for Peyton.

Peyton, 9, is moderately functioning on the autism spectrum. So having a pool in the family's backyard is for more than playtime.

"It's a therapy thing for him," Eric Smith said late afternoon Friday in the backyard of the family home across the street from Fairview Elementary School as Colton and Peyton played behind him.

"He gets exercise out of it," Smith said. "He enjoys it whenever it's the four of us in the pool. It helps him to release anxiety. It's a safe zone for him. He can be himself. He loves being in the water."

"We're in our own backyard, he's in his comfort zone and we can enjoy time as a family," Smith said.

The Smith family is not alone, locally and nationally.

Everything from kiddie pools to inflatable pools to above-ground pools have been flying off retailers' shelves and even higher-end in-ground pools are in high demand, several retailers told The Pantagraph.

"It's been a free-for-all," Rod Hinderliter, president of Backyard Pool & Patio in Bloomington, said in his business on Thursday.

"We are doing triple the business," Hinderliter said. "It would be considerably more than that if we could get the product in."

Public pools didn't open this summer to control the spread of COVID-19. In Bloomington-Normal, that's meant that the thousands of families who used pools at Fairview and Anderson parks in Normal and at O'Neil and Holiday Parks in Bloomington had to look elsewhere for family-friendly recreation.

In addition, shelter-in-place has meant families are forced to spend more time at home and are looking for more fun things to do there. Some are spending money on house projects that they normally would have spent on entertainment elsewhere.

That sent families in Central Illinois and elsewhere in search of backyard pools, retailers say.

"This has been happening for two and a half months," Hinderliter said.

While kiddie and inflatable pools have been popular at large-scale retailers, specialty retailers such as Backyard Pool & Patio have been selling above-ground pools, in-ground pools and hot tubs.

For example, Backyard Pool & Patio has sold 45 hot tubs since March with 39 on order when the business generally sells 150 all year, Hinderliter said.

"If I had them in stock, it would be double that," he said.

He has done three in-ground pool installations this year with two to go, when he normally would do five all year. "I could put in 10 more if I could get them," he said.

"There's been a 300% increase in above-ground pools (sales)," he said.

In addition, his business has completed 15 pool renovations, about 50% higher than usual.

Even with the increased sale of pools and hot tubs, Hinderliter said he could have sold more if they were available. But the high demand has been accompanied by production slowdowns caused by factory social distancing requirements put into place to reduce COVID spread.

"You can't even get an in-ground pool," Hinderliter said. "A lot of people are ordering now for next year. I'm their hero if I can get them a pool this year."

Peyton thrives on routine, so COVID-related changes have been difficult for him, his parents said.

The changes have extended beyond suspension of in-person learning in school. Easterseals Central Illinois in Peoria, where Peyton and Colton had been taking swimming lessons, suspended those lessons in March to reduce the COVID spread, Eric Smith said.

"He finds the water calming," Smith said. "The lessons are like a form of therapy."

With Easterseals lessons on hold and public pools closed for the summer, the Smiths decided to buy a pool.

In April, the couple found an Intex Ultra XTR pool -- 48 inches tall and 16 feet across -- for $550 online through Farm & Fleet. That included the framing, liner, cover, ladder, tarp and sand filter and components.

They hired a professional excavator to level the ground and apply sand, and the couple assembled the pool in late May. They got advice from Etcheson Pool and Spa and The Great Escape about maintaining chemicals for the pool and bought a foam pad from Etcheson to put under the pool.

With other pool-related expenses, the Smiths have spent $1,200 so far and plan to spend another $500 or so on landscaping and lighting.

Even so, the pool that they bought for $550 was selling for $3,000 two weeks ago, and for $2,000 on Friday, Smith said.

"I'm definitely glad that Tiffany and I decided to pull the trigger when we did," Eric Smith said. "If we had waited, we may not have been able to afford it."

"It's amazing," Colton said as he played in the pool. "I play basketball with my daddy and have fun with the squitters."

"It's extra family time," Tiffany said. "And it's memories."


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Contact Paul Swiech at 309-820-3275. Follow him on Twitter: @pg_swiech.

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