Is It Safe to Go Swimming This Summer?

Follow these essential steps to keep you and your family protected from COVID-19.

mother and son swimming

Updated on July 16, 2020.

Summer is here and so is the desire to cool off and go swimming. But these days, a trip to a public pool, lake or beach doesn’t just involve towels, sunscreen and toys. You’ll also need to factor in social distancing and other measures to help prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The good news is that with the right precautions, enjoying a dip is possible.

“At this time, there is no evidence that the virus can be spread to people through the water,” says Michele Hlavsa, RN, MPH, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Healthy Swimming Program. “Meanwhile, there are a number of steps we can all take to slow the spread of the virus at public places when we swim, play or relax in the water.”

General guidelines for public swimming areas

Social distancing is key to keeping you and others healthy, just as it is in other venues. So is regular handwashing and wearing a face covering—when you are not in the water, that is.

“Mask or no mask, water or no water, the biggest thing is that people should not be getting within 6 feet of someone who’s not in their bubble—in other words, someone they don't live with,” says Shira Shafir, PhD, MPH, associate professor in the departments of community health sciences and epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “Any contact who comes within 6 feet of someone who's not in the bubble should be seen as an opportunity to spread the virus,” she adds.

Social distancing can be a particular challenge for children, so it’s a good idea to rehearse it with little ones as much as possible before heading out. A good rule of thumb? If you can touch someone with a pool noodle (typically a bit more than 5 feet long) and you don’t live with that person, you’re too close, explains Hlavsa.

Overall, common sense should rule the day: “Remember to stay home if you have symptoms of COVID-19 (such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing), have been diagnosed with COVID-19, are waiting for COVID-19 test results or have been in close contact with someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days,” Hlavsa says. “Stay home. Stay safe. Save lives.”

If you are ready to venture out, consider this your safe-swimming-in-public action plan.

Step 1: Pack smart

Your summer pool or beach bag is probably already bursting at the seams with gear like sunscreen, sunglasses, goggles and flippers. But this season, you’ll want to make room for extra essentials, according to Shafir.

Face coverings: “Any time anyone is out in a public space of any kind, a cloth face mask is extremely important,” she says. “They shouldn't be worn while you’re in the water, because we know that masks are not as effective when they get damp. But when you’re lounging poolside or laying on the beach, you should definitely use a cloth face mask.” It’s especially critical when keeping your distance from others is difficult. Another reason not to wear your mask in the water: It can be hard to breathe when it gets wet.

Hand sanitizer: This is key, particularly if you’re visiting a place without easy access to hand-washing facilities. The product you choose should contain at least 60 percent alcohol.

Bottled water: It’s always important to stay hydrated when in the sun, but Shafir advises against drinking from water fountains because they’re touched by many hands throughout the day. If you need to refill your water bottle, Hlavsa recommends looking for no-touch fountains, or if need be, fountains that allow you to fill your bottle by pushing a button with your elbow or hip.

Disinfectant wipes: It’s a good idea to carry a stash for items like phones, keys or anything else you might handle frequently, or public surfaces that may not be getting a regular scrubbing (more on that below).

You might also consider bringing:

  • Tissues and paper towels
  • Snacks, so you don’t have to buy from vending machines or stands
  • Baggies for trash if no-touch receptacles are unavailable
  • A first aid kit, to treat trivial scrapes and cuts rather than having to interact with the lifeguard or rescue workers

Step 2: Be aware of your environment

Disinfecting chemicals, like chlorine, should be sufficient to kill SARS-CoV-2 in pool water. And the risk for being infected through larger bodies of water—oceans, lakes and rivers—is thought to be low, since any concentrations of the virus would become diluted.

But what about when you come close to others while in the water?

If you’re standing and, say, splashing or talking while within 6 feet of other people, respiratory transmission remains a possibility. “And if there's heavy breathing because someone's swimming for exercise as opposed to recreation, that can also be higher risk,” notes Shafir.

Most swimming lanes tend to be 6 to 7 feet wide. “My recommendation would depend a lot on the mechanics of the pool,” Shafir says. “But in general, it’s best to have no more than one person per lane.” That should limit the number of direct passes that can occur within a lane.

Giving yourself even more space while swimming could be even better, Shafir notes. "Because people swim at difference paces, they should ideally be swimming in every other lane. That at least increases the chance that social distancing could be maintained.”

Outside the water, commonly touched surfaces pose a threat, particularly since the virus can live on surfaces such as metal for up to a few days. The CDC recommends that facility managers clean and disinfect on a regular basis throughout the day. But since these surfaces tend not to be disinfected between every touch, consider avoiding or wiping them down yourself when possible:

  • Handrails, slides and play equipment
  • Lounge chairs, tables or umbrellas
  • Pool toys that are not your own
  • Door handles, restroom surfaces, diaper changing stations and shower fixtures

What about indoor swimming pools? The same guidance on cleaning surfaces applies, but know that, all things being equal, outdoor pools are likely safer because they offer the benefit of fresh circulating air. COVID-19 spreads mainly through contaminated respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, breathes or speaks, and those droplets can dissipate more easily outdoors than in an indoor facility.

It is not yet clear how long SARS-CoV-2 survives on surfaces, but the World Health Organization notes that early evidence suggests it may persist for up to several days, depending on the type of surface and other variables, like temperature and humidity.

On July 9, 2020, the WHO also updated its guidelines, noting airborne spread of COVID-19 could be possible in some other indoor settings, particularly those that are crowded and have poor ventilation. Airborne spread involves aerosols—particles even smaller than respiratory droplets that may waft and linger in the air.

Step 3: Come home safely

After time spent prepping your bag—and your mindset—it can be hard to bail early on a long-anticipated water day. But use your best judgment when it’s time to pack it in.

“If the public place you swim, play or relax in around the water is too crowded, leave,” Hlavsa says.

When you get home, Shafir suggests doing the following:

  • Wash your hands well with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Take off your clothes, out of an abundance of caution.
  • Wash your swimming mask, goggles and any other toys or floats.
  • Wash any of the soft goods you brought, such as towels and face coverings.
  • Wipe down your keys, phone, lounge chair and anything else with hard surfaces.

“The virus can't survive indefinitely to our best knowledge, but it can survive for about 72 hours on some of those hard, shiny surfaces,” Shafir says. “There's no reason not to wipe stuff down when you get home.”

Step 4: Play your part if called upon

Despite your best efforts, when you’re in a public place with other people, there is a chance you could be infected. So, after you get home, make note of the details of your trip just in case you later get sick and need to share them with contact tracers. Some of the things they may ask include:

  • When were you there?
  • Who accompanied you on the trip?
  • Who else did you come into contact with?
  • Did you get in the water or not?
  • What activities did you do?
  • Were you in a lap lane? If so, which one?

“You have an obligation to participate with public health officials to ensure that anybody else who might have been nearby you is made aware and appropriately quarantines and gets tested if necessary,” Shafir says.

Ultimately, despite the warmer weather, your risk for infection has not changed.

“It's really important for people to be constantly aware of the possibility that they could be infected and infectious, so they may pose a risk to others and others may pose a risk to them,” Shafir says. That thinking should guide your decision-making process. “No matter where you go and what you're doing, social distancing is the safest move.”

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Considerations for Public Pools, Hot Tubs, and Water Playgrounds During COVID-19,” “Healthy Swimming,” “Symptoms of Coronavirus,” “Frequently Asked Questions: COVID-19 and Water.”
Dr. Nancy A. Anoruo. “What experts say about coronavirus in water -- and what it means for beach season.” ABC News. April 20, 2020.
National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “New coronavirus stable for hours on surfaces.”

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