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Is It Safe to Go to the Pool During Coronavirus?

Health experts' advice on chlorine, hand hygiene, physical distancing and face-mask tans

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Hair salons, restaurants and retail shops are slowly reopening for business in communities throughout the country. And this summer many pools will join them, contingent on guidance from state and local health authorities. But is it safe to go swimming when the coronavirus is still spreading in the U.S.?

AARP asked two public health experts for their take. Here's what they had to say.

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Staying 6 feet apart is still the key

The pool itself isn't a safety risk for swimmers, since there is no evidence that the coronavirus can spread to people through water, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says, especially because most pools contain chlorine or bromine, which kill viruses and bacteria.

"So people can't get COVID-19 [the illness caused by the coronavirus] from swallowing water; they can't get COVID-19 from having the water come around their nose, their lips, their eyes, which are the usual routes of transmission,” explains Boris Lushniak, M.D., dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health and former acting and deputy U.S. surgeon general.

The biggest safety concern is whether people can maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from one another, both in and out of the pool. This space minimizes the likelihood that respiratory droplets produced when an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes will spread to others.

spinner image wide view of a public pool from a lounge chair with a womans legs in foreground
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Physical distancing doesn't end in the water

On land it may be as easy as scooting your chair away from your neighbor. Avoiding others in the water, however, can be trickier. “Certainly as people get in the pool and they pop up for air, they're going to be right next to each other, and that's a potential issue,” says Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., a hospital epidemiologist and chair of the division of infectious diseases at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Health System.

One potential solution: Pool operators can set limits on the number of people allowed on the premises. They can also rotate swim times, keeping “people in for 10 minutes at a time, then you have to pop out,” Bearman suggests.

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Another idea: Instead of having members of the same family scattered all across the pool talking to and playing with others, family units should stick together — they should swim with one another and take breaks with one another.

"It still should be a fun time; it still should be a good exercise,” Lushniak says. “But, you know, it's got to be modified with the idea of crowd control and modifications of coming close to others. The virus is still around … so pool time may be a little different.”

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Resign yourself to getting a face-mask tan

Face masks are another way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, but wearing them in the water is not safe and thus not recommended. People should wear them, though, when they're out of the water at a community pool, “because it is still a group activity,” Lushniak notes, referencing the CDC's advice that people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when social distancing is hard to maintain.

And those face-mask tans that swimmers and sunbathers will be sporting by the end of the summer? “Hopefully, it'll be a sign of caring for others,” Lushniak says.

Keep up with hand hygiene

Even if your hands are submerged in chlorinated water the majority of time you are at the pool, it's important to maintain proper hand hygiene. Wash your hands often if possible, and use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water are not available.

It's also not a bad idea to pack disinfectant wipes to clean your chair or table. “Although we have less of a concern in terms of transmission of COVID-19 through surfaces, you still want to make sure that commonly used surfaces are being cleaned off, either by you or by others there at the pool,” Lushniak says. Frequently touched items include doorknobs, the snack-bar counter, “even the handles heading down into the pool,” Lushniak points out. “One needs to be at least wary of the commonly touched surfaces around the pool setting.”

Don't share, despite what you taught your kids

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Bring your own goggles, pool toys and snorkel masks. Ditto for sunscreen, hats and coolers. It's best to keep your belongings close and not share them with friends and fellow swimmers during the pandemic.

"One can sort of say, ‘Well, it's been in chlorinated water.’ But I would just make sure that we get into the habit of what's mine is mine,” Lushniak says. “The whole issue of sharing things should become passé in the near future, at least.”

Inquire about pool rules

If your pool is opening this summer, don't be afraid to ask questions to determine whether it's safe to go. A good one, Bearman says, is to inquire about crowd-control plans. How many people will be allowed into the pool at a time? Who will be in charge of overseeing and enforcing the new rules? Will hand sanitizer be available in areas throughout the facility?

Lushniak says it may be important to know whether staff, including pool operators and lifeguards, will be required to wear masks when on duty. “You may want to ask about the cleaning and disinfection of the pool area” and whether there will be a modified layout to ensure people remain 6 feet apart, he suggests. Then make sure your pool's plans are actually put into practice.

If you're interested in recommended best practices for pools, the CDC has a list of considerations to help these facilities prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Older? Exercise extra caution before diving in

Older people and those with underlying health conditions are at higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 than younger, healthier adults. That's why, Lushniak says, this summer they “need to be even more wary” in social settings.

Try to minimize how often you're out in public, Bearman says, especially if coronavirus cases are spiking in your area. (The federal government recommends that high-risk populations continue to shelter in place during the first two reopening phases.) “And if you choose to go, still try to take some commonsense approaches.”

For example, avoid the times of day when the pool is more likely to be crowded. Wash your hands often, wear a face mask, “and definitely respect social distancing as much as possible, even in the water,” Bearman recommends.

"There's really no one single way to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. It takes a collaborative community effort — a multipronged approach, which includes social distancing and isolation and hygiene and wearing a mask,” he adds.

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