En español | The pandemic is by no means over, but as more Americans get vaccinated and fewer people fall ill to COVID-19, this summer is shaping up to be sunnier than the last — particularly for eager pool-goers.
A whopping 93 percent of outdoor swimming pools plan to open this summer, according to a newly published snapshot from the National Recreation and Park Association. But with less than half of the U.S. population fully vaccinated, many will still have restrictions in place to minimize the risk of the virus spreading. These rules will vary, depending on state and local government guidance; individual establishments can also set their own requirements for swimmers.
Here's what you can expect when you head to the pool this summer.
1. Masks may still be required
Face masks should never be worn in the water (a wet mask can make it hard to breathe), but they are recommended in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) most recently updated guidance for pools, so some pools may still require them out of the water and in crowded areas, such as the snack bar or pool office, regardless of vaccination status.
If masks aren't required at your local pool, you may want to bring one anyway — especially for restrooms, locker rooms and other indoor settings, which are considered higher-risk environments than outside, says Joshua Petrie, a research assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. His advice: Keep an eye on the transmission rates in your community. If cases are spiking and the virus is circulating, you may want to be more cautious than if numbers in your area are low.
Another thing to consider is that children under 12 — who make up a significant portion of the pool-going population — haven't been able to get vaccinated, so even in the absence of mask mandates, parents and grandparents may want their little ones (ages 2 and up) to wear a mask when playing outside of the pool with others, says Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).
2. There will be fewer people
Many pools will be limiting their capacity this summer to ensure that people can keep a safe distance from others, which means you may need to reserve a time to swim in advance. You'll probably have to answer some health screening questions, too, before you dive in. Staff will want to make sure that anyone who isn't feeling well stays home and away from others.
The deck layout could also look a little different than you remember. CDC guidance for pools strongly encourages physical distancing in and out of the water, so it's likely chairs and tables will be spaced out and people waiting in line for diving boards, restrooms and the like will need to stand at least 6 feet apart.
3. You won't catch COVID-19 from the water
There is no scientific evidence that the coronavirus spreads through water in pools, hot tubs, water playgrounds and other treated aquatic venues, so there's no need to worry about catching COVID-19 from the water itself. That said, if you're unvaccinated and near an infected person in the water who is yelling or talking loudly — maybe you're playing water polo, for example — it's possible you could become infected, too, since the primary mode of transmission is by way of small and large respiratory droplets.
"The chances [of that happening] are fairly low, regardless, because you are outside,” says NACCHO's Tremmel Freeman. “They're not zero, you know, but they are low.”
4. Be prepared to skip the shower
Pools may limit the number of people allowed in indoor shared spaces like locker rooms, so the easiest thing to do is come prepared, says Allison Colman, director of health at the National Recreation and Park Association, which has helped parks and recreation agencies throughout the U.S. implement COVID-19 guidance and safety protocols.
"Come showered, come dressed and ready to get in the pool, and try to avoid indoor congregation as much as possible,” she adds. “It's been pretty clear that the risk of outdoor activities is significantly lower than indoor spaces just primarily due to poor ventilation, so [pools] are really trying to [keep people] outside as much as possible."
5. You should disinfect strategically
Packing your own sanitizers and disinfectant wipes to scrub tables and chairs before you sit down “is probably a little bit much,” Petrie says, especially since the lifeguards and pool staff will likely be cleaning the facility more regularly than before the pandemic — again, per federal guidance. What's more, we now know the risk of getting infected from a surface is very low — generally less than 1 in 10,000, the CDC says.
But it's still smart to practice good hand hygiene. Wash with soap and water often, Petrie says, especially before you eat. If handwashing stations aren't available outside and indoor locker rooms and restrooms are too crowded, use hand sanitizer instead.
Another tip to make your trip to the pool go safely and smoothly: Bring your own equipment — goggles, kickboards and toys, for example, as well as spatulas and tongs if you plan to grill. Not only will this avoid sharing germs with others, it will also make it easier on the staff tasked with cleaning shared objects that belong to the pool in between uses, Colman says.
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.
Getting Vaccinated Can Make For a Safer Summer
The simplest way to ensure your safety this summer is to get a COVID-19 vaccine if you haven't already, says Joshua Petrie, a research assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Three different vaccines have been authorized in the U.S. by the Food and Drug Administration: two-dose regimens from both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech and a single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions about which is best for you.