Warm weather is all about cooling off in a pool, but how risky is that right now?

By Claire Gillespie
June 04, 2020
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Under normal circumstances, you might be spending much of your free time at the pool right now. But is it even safe to swim in a pool, and can you catch the coronavirus in a swimming pool? Like so many other routine activities in the era of COVID-19, going to a pool now requires careful consideration and risk assessment. 

Can you catch coronavirus in a pool?

Here’s the good news first: Outdoor areas are believed to have a lower risk of coronavirus transmission than indoor spaces. So if the pool you plan on hitting up is outside, your risk of COVID-19 is decreased. Also, there’s no evidence that the coronavirus spreads through water in pools (or hot tubs, spas, or water play areas), per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Does chlorine kill the coronavirus?

Plus, if you’re swimming in a pool with chlorine, the risk of contracting the virus is even lower. “The coronavirus doesn’t survive in chlorinated water,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, tells Health.  

But that doesn’t mean you can’t get COVID-19 while in a swimming pool. Coronavirus is a respiratory illness, which means it spreads when droplets from the mouth or nose fly through the air. So anywhere you’re interacting with others who are talking, coughing, or sneezing—even if you’re in the water—puts you at risk of inhaling a droplet from an infected person.

Dr. Adalja says the biggest risk of going to the pool lies out of the water. “There can be crowded conditions and common touch surfaces (like the deck and the locker room) that may provide an opportunity for the virus to transmit,” he says. 

What safety measures should a pool have in place?

The CDC has published guidelines for anyone who operates or manages a public pool. These guidelines include providing supplies to support healthy hygiene (i.e. soap, hand sanitizer and no-touch trash cans) and disinfecting shared objects (such as lounge chairs, pool noodles, and kickboards) each time they are used. The guidelines also advise creating physical and visual cues (for example, lane lines in the water) to ensure that everybody stays at least six feet apart, both in and out of the water. So if your local pool is open, think less pool party, more laps. 

Many states have started to re-open public pools, but with strict rules in place. In The Villages, Florida, where pools opened on May 4, swimmers are asked to “come dressed to swim'' and bring their own masks, disinfecting wipes, and hand sanitizer. Swimmers must stay six feet away from one another and can stay in the pool for no longer than one hour. There are also capacity limits in place, which vary depending on whether the pool is a sports pool, a family pool, or a neighborhood pool. 

Ultimately, public health officials can't provide definitive guidelines for all activities for all people in all areas of the country, and going to the pool is one of those activities that requires you to do some risk-assessment of your own. “While the water is generally quite safe, the people and surfaces around a pool could all harbor the coronavirus,” David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health

How risky is a pool for an otherwise healthy person?

The problem is, it’s virtually impossible to know how many people going to the pool have COVID-19, especially because infection can be passed before symptoms present, and many infected people don’t display any symptoms. However, what you can figure out with more certainty is how much of a health hazard COVID-19 poses to you or your family member. 

“This depends on age and health status,” says Dr. Cutler. “Younger, healthier people have far lower risk of death or disability from COVID-19, while older people with underlying health conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes face a much greater risk.”

So if you’re a young, healthy person who lives in a region with a decreasing number of COVID-19 infections, you can probably go to an outdoor pool without worrying too much about getting infected—provided you take the necessary precautions. CDC advice for going to the pool includes staying at least six feet away from people you don't live with and wearing cloth face coverings when you’re not in the water, as they can be difficult to breathe through when they’re wet. “When you’re at the pool, always wash your hands after touching any surface, such as a doorknob or shower handle, and especially before touching your face,” adds Dr. Cutler. 

When it comes to formally routine activities, it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves what risk is tolerable, advises Dr. Adalja. The virus hasn’t evaporated simply because stay-at-home orders have been lifted, and no activity will be without risk during the pandemic until a vaccine is developed,” he says.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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