Every Memorial Day when I was a kid, my dad used to drive me two hours to visit a cemetery and put flowers on the graves of relatives who had died before I was born. On the way there, we’d always pass through a town that had a pool with a glorious, twisty water slide. Today, I look back on those quirky visits to the cemetery lovingly. But as a kid all I wanted was to hit the slide on opening weekend.
This year, I’m glad that I was trained early on to practice patience when it comes to taking that first dip in the pool. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, public pools in some states won’t be opening. In states where they are, such as Florida, Georgia, and Texas, they will be under serious restrictions.
To help prevent the spread of the virus without totally quashing summer fun, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention just released new guidelines for swimmers, lifeguards, and pool employees. They recommend that people who visit pools use cloth face masks unless they’re in the water. (Once they're in the water, the CDC advises de-masking, since it can be hard to breathe through a wet mask.)
Pool-goers are also being told to continue to socially distance even while splashing around. That means keeping six feet between themselves and anyone they're not quarantining at home with, in and out of the water.
But even with all these regulations in place, is going to the pool safe? “Honestly, I think it’s a little early to start doing that,” says Jill Grimes, MD, a physician in Texas. “We’ve just started opening things back up because our prevalence is relatively low here in Texas, but in next couple of weeks, I’m concerned we’ll have a surge because it will spread with people going back out.”
Of course, where she is, it’s 96 degrees already, and people definitely want to go swimming. So if you do go to the pool, follow the CDC guidelines. In addition to keeping your distance from others, you should avoid sharing towels, floaties, or noodles with anyone outside of your quarantine crew, Dr. Grimes says. She even suggests steering clear of covered slides, which can be hard to clean.
When you’re in the water, the chlorine will kill the virus, explains Sabeena Hickman, the president and CEO of the Pool and Hot Tub Alliance. “In terms of chlorine and chemicals, any kind of disease or bacteria is killed pretty much instantaneously in properly maintained pools,” she says. (In an interview with USA Today, Morteza Abbaszadegan, a professor of environmental microbiology, echoed the sentiment.) Of note: Coronavirus’s RNA has been detected in urine, but it’s unlikely it spread that way — and presumably, the chlorine would nip it in the bud.
That means it's probably fine to touch the ladders of pools, which are constantly being splashed with chlorine, Dr. Grimes says. (Plus, the CDC recently updated its guidance to say that coronavirus “does not spread easily” on most surfaces.) But as a precaution, Dr. Grimes recommends avoiding touching your face, and using hand sanitizer after touching shared surfaces, such as door handles in the locker rooms. It can’t hurt.
Dr. Grimes says that a major concern at the pool is keeping track of children, for whom "playing" can look a lot like "wrestling" — not social distancing. She says that if you choose to visit the pool, it's best to stick to swimming laps or relaxing on a lounge chair with a book. Although... you may get mask-shaped tan line.
Ultimately, you should err on the side of caution right now, Dr. Grimes says. Just because you live in an area where COVID-19 hasn’t spread, it doesn’t mean it can’t hurt your community. A safer bet may be to just buy a kiddie pool and hang out there this summer.