Andy Powell never imagined his career path would lead him to spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning thousands of plastic balls.
“Absolutely not,” Powell said recently from the floor of his Urban Air Adventure Park franchise in Bellingham. The 35,000-square-foot venue full of trampolines, dodgeball courts, and tumble tracks all centers around his pièce de résistance: a massive, four-lane American Ninja Warrior-style obstacle course that is the venue’s signature attraction.
After a nearly yearlong shutdown, Powell recently reopened his facility. But the Warrior Obstacle Course has remained closed due to specific state regulations, Powell explained.
“What cushions your fall if you can’t make it through the course?” he asked. “Balls.”
All 250,000 of them, to be exact — small, plastic, and translucent.
Powell acknowledged the sheer volume of work involved in cleaning them. “It takes a lot to maintain your ball pit properly,” he said. But it’s important for the health and safety of his patrons, now more than ever.
Over the past year, as Governor Charlie Baker has issued and reissued guidelines for reopening Massachusetts, a subset of high-contact businesses have been relegated to the end of the line: Nightclubs, hot tubs, steam rooms, indoor water parks, and, yes, ball pits are all slated to reopen Aug. 1.
Ball pits always have had a rather mixed reputation. A beloved childhood experience for many, the indoor play spaces were developed as an answer to the stranger-danger anxieties of the ’70s, when fear of child abductions and legal threats from injuries on outdoor playground equipment surged. Over time, they became synonymous with birthday parties, Chuck E. Cheese — and being a petri dish of germs.
So the repeated inclusion of this children’s amusement on the governor’s list has become somewhat of a trope among the local political set. Last week, a reporter asked Baker if he planned to hop in a ball pit when he was able to again. Politico reporter Stephanie Murray went so far as to find out if there was a ball pit lobby pushing Baker on Beacon Hill for its inclusion on the list (there was not).
Baker, for his part, has kept a straight face when answering questions about ball pits, and his administration said that ball pit operators were among the “75 business and labor associations and community coalitions” consulted during the reopening process.
For the operators of such amusements in the region, the future of ball pit ownership is no laughing matter. Much of the joy once associated with ball pits has been drained over the past year, and many wonder if it will ever be the same.
MIT has closed the ball pit in its Simmons Hall dormitory, and it “will remain closed for the foreseeable future,” a campus representative said. The pits at IKEA’s Småland play area also are shuttered. “We are unable to comment about ball pits at this time,” a company rep said via e-mail.
Chuck E. Cheese, meanwhile, was the first major food chain to declare bankruptcy during the pandemic, and as it rethinks its approach to birthday parties, ball pits will likely not play a part. And while a McDonald’s rep said the company is taking a “thoughtful and judicious approach” to reopening its dining rooms and play spaces, its former chief executive Ed Rensi said he doesn’t believe it would be “wise” to reopen the latter. “[T]hose ball pits are really a nightmare to keep clean all the time,” he told FOX Business Network.
But some are determined to reopen. Powell, the owner of the Urban Air Adventure Park, is one of them.
He shut down his facility last year before the statewide mandate, and was sidelined for all but six weeks of the rest of 2020. Finally, in March, he swung open his doors, but the Warrior Obstacle Course and its ball pit remain roped off from public use.
Powell said it’s frustrating, as some guests come to the park specifically to run the course, and because he’d already spent over $5,000 on a ball pit cleaning machine before the pandemic. The massive, vacuum-like device sucks up the soiled balls into a washing machine, where they’re cleaned with detergent.
“It shakes it all up, it jumbles the balls and then kind of spits them out through another hose,” said Powell. And because they’re usually damp after washing, he puts them in massive mesh bags and dries them with leaf blowers.
Some operators are hoping that a more private ball pit experience might give them an edge. Minoshia Wright, owner of Lee’s Playland in Boston, rents ball pits of various sizes for private parties. Wright, whose day job is in operations at a pharmaceutical company, said safety and cleanliness are top of mind. She, too, uses a commercial ball pit cleaning machine and a disinfectant sprayer after each rental.
“I’m not dropping COVID off at someone’s door. It’s being used in a private home,” she said.
Then there are those who have found other ways to scratch that ball pit itch.
When Drew Krepp needs to relax after a long day of Zoom calls, he gets up from the desk in his home office, walks past the rowing machine, and takes a moment to submerge himself in his homemade ball pit.
Floating amid 12,000 plastic orbs that engulf his over-6-foot frame, he experiences a kind of sensory deprivation that immediately calms him, particularly this last year during the pandemic.
“You’re suspended in there, it’s quiet, and you only kind of hear the balls rustling around,” he said, offering a glimpse of his relaxation station to a reporter over video.
Krepp built a prototype of his ball pit before the pandemic, but has since constructed a 9-by-4-foot enclosure in his Maryland home office. The 44-year-old cringes at the notion of ever jumping in a public ball pit again after the pandemic subsides.
“I think it’s going to be the death knell for the public ball pit,” he said. “It’s one of those things, perceptions will have changed so much.”
Actual germ theory on ball pits does little to dissuade those opinions. In a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, researchers at the University of North Georgia found “considerable microbial colonization” in ball pits used in physical therapy settings. After swabbing the balls, they found nine “opportunistic pathogens,” which included bacteria associated with “urinary tract infections, meningitis, respiratory distress syndrome, streptococcal shock, and skin infections.”
Mary Ellen Oesterle, the study’s lead author, said in her 10 years as a physical therapist, she worked with children who she suspected had contracted infections from ball pits. But she contends there are benefits: Ball pits provide stimulation to children with autism and sensory processing disorders.
Her coauthor, environmental microbiologist Dobroslawa Bialonska, used to liken ball pits to playing in the dirt, allowing for some degree of exposure to let kids build up their immune system. But now, she’s more hesitant to say as much until kids have access to a COVID vaccine.
Bialonska believes that measures should be in place to ensure the safety of public ball pits. “The FDA should actually look into bringing in some regulations about how to clean them, and how often to clean them,” she said.
There’s an irony, of course, that ball pits, born partly of parental fears, could die out for similar reasons. To lose them, and the innocent bliss that they bring, is something Krepp thinks about a lot.
“Everyone should share the joy of the ball pit,” he said. Just maybe not the same ball pit.
Anissa Gardizy of the Globe staff contributed to this report.