Will we ever be able to dive back into ball pits?

Maura Judkis

THE WASHINGTON POST – Natalie Pariano was feeling some pandemic-related wanderlust, and found herself looking through old travel photos when something stopped her scrolling finger dead in its tracks.

It was a shot of her head poking out of a pool of pastel-coloured balls. The picture was from a 2019 trip to the Color Factory, an immersive, Instagrammable attraction in New York City that features rooms full of colourful installations.

At the time, it had felt perfectly natural to dive in. But now?

What once looked like an ocean of colour is now a sea of respiratory droplets. Unsafe waters. A breeding ground for extremophile bacteria, like the darkest crevices of the Mariana Trench.

When it comes to the risk of coronavirus infection, “we talk about the three C’s,” said University of Minnesota School of Public Health Professor Peter Raynor. “Closed spaces, crowded places, close contact.” Ball pits have all three.

Are they essential? Hardly. That’s kind of what makes them fun. But needless to say, the majority of ball pits in the United States (US) are closed right now, and nobody’s in a huge hurry to reopen them. They’re listed in Phase 4 for Massachusetts, and they weren’t included in the recreational facilities permitted to reopen in California. Tennessee reopening guidelines call ball pits “areas where social distancing is difficult or impossible to maintain” and require they be off limits to visitors.

Visitors play around the ball-pit pool at DC’s National Building Museum. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

That has been catastrophic for the ball pit industry, said 21st Century Products President Jim Sitton, whose company manufactures ball pit balls.

“COVID-19 has pretty much shut our business down for the moment,” Sitton said. “If the industry comes back, hopefully we’ll be around to see that happen.”

It’s not just kids who are going without. Among adults, ball pits have undergone a resurgence as millennials’ nostalgia and fondness for Instagram have found them flocking to highly stylised photo traps, such as the Color Factory or the Museum of Ice Cream. There’s always a ball pit, or some variation (a pool of plastic sprinkles at the Museum of Ice Cream, a vat of foam marshmallows at Candytopia) – irresistible to ‘90s babies who spent childhood birthday parties luxuriating in the ball pits at Chuck E Cheese or Discovery Zone. In 2015, the National Building Museum’s immersive indoor summer exhibition, The Beach, included a monochromatic ball pit that evoked a gigantic bubble bath. Families and young adults alike swarmed the exhibition and broke the museum’s visitor record.

Those days are now disappearing over the horizon of our new germaphobic era. The overseers of ball pits have been thinking about what it would take to make people feel safe wading back in.

A publicist for the Museum of Ice Cream shared diagrams for a new version of the sprinkle pool, revamped for the coronavirus age: Instead of a slide dumping germ-carrying guests directly into the sprinkles, the museum is going to build small, easily cleanable islands in the middle, so people can get in the pool without touching the sprinkles.

The Color Factory washes its balls in a ball pit washing machine and when it reopens, there will be additional safety factors.

The exhibit will limit capacity and require masks and sanitising before and after people enter the pit.

Cleaning normally would happen behind the scenes, but the factory will make the sanitising process more visible to put people at ease. It will also use machines to deploy a disinfectant “fog” on the balls, similar to the kind that airlines use to sterilise airplane cabins. And its balls, which are purchased from Sitton’s company, contain an antibacterial agent in the plastic.

“I would contend that – in a pre-COVID world, and especially in a post-COVID world – that we have the cleanest ball pit on the planet,” said Color Factory Chief Executive Jeff Lind. But antibacterial is not antiviral. And reassurances and frequent cleanings may not be enough. Raynor said he thinks it would be pretty embarrassing for someone who contracts the coronavirus to have to admit to a contact tracer that they had been playing in a ball pit during a pandemic.

What about at a later point in time? Will anyone see ball pits the same way?

The thing to remember is that even before there was a wildly contagious virus stalking humanity, ball pits had a reputation for being rainbow-coloured kiddie petri dishes of bacteria.

For the Instagram influencers who popularised ball pits, they might move on to more hygienic ways to recapture their youth. Christine Tran Ferguson, 34, has over 300,000 followers on her fashion and travel Instagram, and she said she won’t be visiting any ball pits when they reopen.