Rinkreation

The popularity of the Stuart Park ice rink is shown in this file pic. Big White isn't opening its rink this winter because of COVID-19 concerns, but the City of Kelowna says a decision regarding its rink won't be made until mid-October.

A decision on whether downtown Kelowna's popular outdoor skating rink will open this winter is on ice, for now.

City recreation officials say they likely won't know for a month if the rink in Stuart Park can welcome skaters given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're pretty busy with the re-opening plan for other recreation facilities so it'll probably be mid-October or so before we start considering what's going to happen with the Stuart Park rink," Steve Fagan, the city's arenas and stadiums supervisor, said Tuesday.

Big White ski resort has announced it won't be opening its Olympic-sized skating rink, or offering some other amenities this winter, because of the pandemic.

"When considering physical spacing, sanitization, safety protocols, indoor operations, and outdoor gatherings, the offering of night skiing, tubing, skating, and fire pits have been deemed too precarious to operate," Big White president Peter Plimmer writes on the resort's website.

"All these considerations brought us to the decision to suspend these activities during COVID-19," Plimmer writes.

The Stuart Park ice rink, opened in 2011, is one of Kelowna's most popular wintertime attractions for locals and tourists. It typically opens in early December with the ice maintained until late February or early March.

On a mild winter's day, hundreds of people can be either skating on the rink or gathering around its edges, many warming themselves next to a fire pit.

The city has re-opened other outdoor recreational facilities, such as tennis and basketball courts and skateboard parks, that were closed at the onset of the pandemic earlier this year.

But Fagan said those re-openings don't necessarily mean that the outdoor rink will also open on schedule. "We're still  working through the details," he said. "We're just not at a position yet where we can say what the decision is."

City-owned indoor skating rinks will be open this fall and winter, though operations will be adapted to comply with COVID-19 safety measures, Fagan said.

Advance bookings and controlled entry points will make it easier for municipal staff to limit the number of people skating on those rinks, but the Stuart Park rink is free to use, has no boards, and is open to all through the morning and evening hours, making crowd management much more difficult if not impossible.

While there is a provincial health order banning gatherings of more than 50 people, this does not apply to recreation facilities that are large enough to accommodate more people providing physical distancing is maintained.

In its re-start of gyms, pools, and other such facilities, the City of Kelowna is guided by advice from the B.C. Parks and Recreation Association.

On its website, the association refers to public skating as an "unstructured activity", along with skateboarding and racquet sports, that will "require participants to self-manage the most".

For rinks, the association says capacity limits should be set that provide for five square metres of space for every person on skates. At two-thirds the size of an NHL rink, the Stuart Park ice sheet covers 920 square metres. That would suggest a maximum capacity of 184 people at any one time.

On the city's webpage, Stuart Park's ice rink capacity is listed at 100 people. But, as Fagan acknowledges, that's just a guideline with no attempt in past winters to actually control the number of people who venture onto the ice.

Past experience has been the rink is self-regulating, in the sense that people don't venture out onto it if they believe it's too busy, Fagan said. "We don't count people," he said.