Read This Before You Go to a Swimming Pool

Experts say there’s no evidence that the coronavirus is spread through the water, but that doesn’t mean a pool day is risk-free

Photo: Flashpop/Getty Images

In many areas of the country, communities are reopening public pools. “This has been a record-breaking summer for heat, and since many people have been cooped up in their homes, coming out to swim can be a really nice respite,” says Jody Gan, MPH, an aquatics researcher and public health professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Gan says that a dip in the pool is exactly what many Americans need to cool off amid the stress of the global Covid-19 pandemic, but she also warns that it’s “very important that pools are operated safely.” Like any social activity outside the home that involves being around other people, visiting communal swimming pools comes with risks if you don’t follow proper safety guidelines.

Here’s what to keep in mind if you’re going to the pool this summer.

The water provides a safety net

Before you enter the pool, survey your surroundings. “There’s always a risk of crowds coming out to cool off, so you need to look around before you even go in to sense your ability to distance yourself at least six feet from people you haven’t quarantined with,” says Cassandra Pierre, MD, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center. If you don’t feel like you can adequately distance, consider going to another pool or swimming at a lower-traffic time of day.

Experts say you don’t have to worry as much about the water as you do about the people around you, who most likely don’t wear a mask while they’re swimming. (Masks are hard to breathe through when they’re wet and are not recommended in a pool.)

Evidence shows the pool water provides a bit of a safety net: According to the CDC, there’s no evidence that Covid-19 spreads through water in pools. That’s in part because chlorine kills SARS-CoV-2 and also keeps viral particles from floating around the pool. “The chlorine helps provide the oxidation necessary to bond the killed coronavirus to the neutralized free chlorine, so it can be trapped by filters to keep the water clean,” Gan says.

Pool staff need to chlorinate 24/7 and test the chlorine and pH levels hourly. “But that’s standard operating procedure, even during summers when Covid-19 isn’t an issue,” she says.

Even though chlorine provides some protection by killing the coronavirus in the water, you still need to keep a six-foot distance from anyone in the pool who’s not part of your quarantine “pod.” It’s also best to avoid close-contact games like Marco Polo and games with balls, since they could discourage social distancing.

“There are very few people who are going to spend long pool visits treading water in a 12-foot area, which can make the shallow end very crowded.”

Skip the post-swim shower if it’s indoors

Many publicly run pools make distancing a bit easier by reducing in-pool and on-deck capacity allowances. For example, the CDC recently offered guidelines to states about pool capacity limits based on a simple formula: the surface area of the pool divided by 36. For example, if the pool is 40 feet by 20 feet, or 800 square feet, the limit would be 22 people. However, Gan says that formula doesn’t take into account that people won’t be perfectly dispersed throughout different areas of the pool.

“There are very few people who are going to spend long pool visits treading water in a 12-foot area, which can make the shallow end very crowded,” she says.

Outside the pool, follow standard Covid-19 safety practices: Wear a mask, and maintain six feet of distance from others. Now isn’t the time to lounge on the pool deck — in fact, Gan says many pools have removed their lounge chairs and tables for that reason.

Your pool may or may not be selling food and drinks, but even if there is food available, wait until you get home to eat or drink. “Unless you are lucky enough to have command of your own pool, then I’d avoid eating or drinking anything while you’re there, since you’d have to take your mask off,” says Pierre.

You should also delay your post-swim shower until you get home — Pierre says showering in an indoor communal space is a little dicey. “There may be a higher risk of spreading Covid-19 due to stagnant air,” she says. “You’ll also be closer to people, and they are much less likely to wear a mask in the shower.”

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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