The coronavirus pandemic is casting a dark cloud over prime pool season, so some people are making their own splashy fun at home. Aquatics fans desperate for a dip are turning to inflatable kiddie pools or building socially distant swimming holes in their backyards.
More than 35 million people are out of work, and many households are struggling to pay for basic expenses, including food and rent. But Americans are still finding ways to spend on swimming pools, from under-$30 blow-up versions to full-on construction projects. Pool builders say they are seeing a surge of interest from homeowners looking to create a personal pool paradise on their property.
“The market right now has been tremendous,” said Dick Covert, executive director of the Master Pools Guild, Inc., an international group of about 100 builders that specialize in custom-built high-end pools. Some builders have gotten more requests in the first three months of this year than they had in all of last year, Covert said.
The 25 biggest pool builders in the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance — a trade group whose goal is “to promote and protect the aquatics lifestyle” — have had more consumer inquiries this spring than they did a year ago, said Sabeena Hickman, the president and CEO of the Alliance.
“With COVID, and the trepidation with travel, people are taking that money and investing it in a backyard pool,” Hickman said. “Most of the industry had shut down for a period of time. Now they’re saying their phones are ringing off the hook.”
‘It’s a $20 to $40 investment that you will never regret’
Creating a private pool oasis at home doesn’t require a big budget. Kathryn Reagan, a 26-year-old software engineer in Dallas, Texas, lives in a condo complex with a pool that’s currently closed. She and her best friend, who lives in Oxford, Miss., bought the exact same inflatable pool on Amazon AMZN, +0.95% for about $25. It’s a perfect spot for lounging with a hard seltzer or glass of rosé in the Texas heat while she reads a book.
“It’s a $20 to $40 investment that you will never regret,” Reagan told MarketWatch. “It’s a very nice mental break from feeling like you’re trapped inside your house.”
She’s far from alone. Sales of pools and pool-related products on Amazon nearly doubled this April compared to April 2019, a spokeswoman said. One of the site’s top-selling pools is an 8-foot-wide, 2.5-foot-deep inflatable above-ground pool with filter pump for $222.22. Meanwhile, Minnidip, a maker of “designer” adult-sized inflatable pools that sell for $30 to $50 at Target TGT, -1.10% , saw “record-breaking” sales in late April, the Los Angeles Times reported.
‘It is truly becoming their summer vacation’
There’s no evidence that COVID-19 can spread to people from swimming-pool water, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Proper operation and disinfection of pools, hot tubs, and water playgrounds should kill the virus that causes COVID-19,” the CDC says on its website.
But public pools are, of course, gathering spots where the coronavirus could be transmitted. Though some states are allowing some business activity to resume, pools remain closed in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. Pools in Texas and Arizona were allowed to open in May, but they must limit the number of people who visit at one time, and swimmers must practice social distancing.
With Americans wary of travel involving planes, hotels or cruises, people with the means to do so are turning their backyards into resort-style destinations, Covert said. Some seek to create a “total environment” complete with outdoor kitchens, bars, grills, lighting, “tanning ledges,” slides and waterfalls.
“People are saying, ‘I’m not going to travel, my family is going to be at home, we’re not going to be out socializing — I want to provide my family with something we can all enjoy and use for both exercise or entertainment,’” he said. “It is truly becoming their summer vacation.”
“ ‘With COVID, and the trepidation with travel, people are taking that money and investing it in a backyard pool.’ ”
For now, Master Pools Guild members are moving cautiously, because they don’t know how long the recent surge in demand will last as the U.S. fights its way out of a severe economic downturn. Costs vary considerably depending on where in the U.S. a pool is being built and how complex the project is, Covert said, but a basic backyard pool can cost roughly $35,000, with fancier setups running $75,000 and up.
Business continued during the Great Recession among high-end pool builders, although at a slower pace, and customers negotiated for lower prices, Covert said. Now luxury pool builders are facing different downturn-related hurdles: They’re having trouble getting building permits with local governments slowed by shutdowns, and some are having to turn down business because they can’t get enough construction personnel, in part because some employees can make more money under the CARES Act’s temporarily expanded unemployment benefits than they would if they went back to work, he said.
Market research firm IBIS World predicts a 1.4% decline in revenue growth for the U.S. swimming-pool construction industry because of the pandemic. Nonetheless, an April survey of 3,000 homeowners by the nonprofit Home Improvement Research Institute found that 8.4% said they planned to do some work on their swimming pools and/or hot tubs in the next three months, up from 7.3% last year.
‘We both work hard and we want to have a little oasis in our backyard’
In Ottawa, Canada, Keith Gough and his wife had always planned to add a pool to their backyard, but with the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, they decided to fast-track the project. Gough owns a private basketball training academy that’s been closed since March due to the pandemic. He and his wife, Nicole, a social worker, bought a semi-inground pool from Pool Supplies Canada for around 1,500 Canadian dollars and have been installing it themselves using equipment from Gough’s side job in construction.
“It’s a lot of work, but I’ve got a lot of time,” Gough said. “We both work hard and we want to have a little oasis in our backyard.”
He says the effort will pay off, especially if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus. “What if it happens again and we’re locked down for July and August, the hottest months of the year? We can’t swim every day, all day, but this adds another element to being at home,” Gough said. “My kids think it’s a little corny to be hanging out with Mom and Dad all the time, but we want to spend as much time with them as possible.”
‘I’m really hoping it’s a strong year for our industry’
The Pool and Hot Tub Alliance is hoping to capitalize on stay-at-home orders with a new marketing campaign emphasizing the upsides of pool-centered at-home fun, Hickman said.
“We’re really going to start promoting staycations and the benefit of investing in your backyard and being able to control sanitation and being able to control social distancing and keep your family safe,” she said. “Being around the water makes you feel good. I’m really hoping it’s a strong year for our industry.”