Pre-pandemic, ball pits were a thing.
Filled with colorful plastic balls and teeming with kids, they were a staple of fast-food play areas, birthday parties and fun centers. Hip Instagrammable versions popped up in New York and London. In 2016, Tampa’s own Amalie Arena, where the Lightning play hockey, attracted more than 100,000 people who frolicked and belly-flopped in a sea of 1.2 million white balls.
Then came our battle against the insidious spread of the coronavirus, and ball pits filled with humans seemed a spectacularly bad idea. They largely shut down.
Now, as we slowly emerge, restaurants and fun centers are presumably weighing their options. The state of Massachusetts has even officially listed ball pits as one of their businesses slated to re-open in August.
Could ball pits make a comeback?
Ball pits raised eyebrows even before the pandemic, given the interacting children who might mouth balls, sport runny noses and not thoroughly wash their hands after using the bathroom.
Health experts have said there’s the potential to spread things like pinkeye. A 2018 study found “considerable microbial colonization” including bacteria in ball pits that had been used for physical therapy. Stories of used bandages and dirty diapers found in playground ball pits abound.
A counter-argument has been that some amount of public playing has the potential to build kids’ immunity.
“We always kind of joked they were a hotbed for disease before the pandemic,” said Jill Roberts, microbiologist with the University of South Florida College of Public Heath. “The reality is anyplace you have a lot of kids, you’re going to have that kind of problem.”
Does her daughter, who is 8, go to ball pits?
“No,” she said. “No, she does not.”
“I think I’ve always had a bit of an ‘ick’ factor when it comes to ball pits,” said Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology in the College of Public Health and Health Professions at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
One potential problem, at least short term: “Unfortunately, the young kids that are going to be playing in these ball pits are not going to be vaccinated,” said Dr. Meghan Martin, pediatric emergency room doctor at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
The vaccine recently became available to those 12 and up, but younger (presumably ball pit-aged) kids can’t get it yet. Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president, recently said that the younger set will likely be able to get vaccinated by the end of the year or the first quarter of next year.
Health officials also have concerns regarding the spread of those droplets we’ve learned so much about and about kids’ ability to social-distance.
“When you’re enthusiastic and yelling and screaming, you actually create more droplets,” said Martin.
Prins said the ball pit “is not inherently an evil place.”
“To me it’s not the ball pit, it’s the distancing,” she said. “It’s all about taking the regular precautions ... just trying to minimize that airborne and droplet spread.”
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Parents are urged to keep up that regimen of handwashing and other infection prevention measures.
“We have wonderfully short memories,” Prins said. “We go back to our habits very quickly.”
In the end, adults will have to assess the risks versus benefits of ball pit participation — though there doesn’t appear to be a rush to re-open them immediately.
Asked about ball pits, an IKEA spokesperson said via email that their play area, Smaland, remains closed for now. Ditto McDonald’s PlayPlaces, according to an email from a spokesperson there. A former McDonald’s CEO told Fox Business last year the company would be wise to get rid of ball pits in the long term.
A spokesperson for CEC Entertainment, parent company of Chuck E. Cheese, which planned to permanently close more than 30 locations last year, said the restaurants removed ball pits more than 20 years ago.
Roberts’ solution to the potential allure of the ball pit in her own family?
Turns out smaller versions are sold online and at big box stores.
“We actually had one at our home,” she said.