Coronavirus and Swimming: Is it Safe to Swim During the COVID-19 Pandemic?

As pools and lakes open for summer, find out how to stay safe

pool closings and openings COVID-19

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Key Takeaways

  • COVID-19 is not known to spread in the water.
  • While the CDC offers general advice for public pools, like spacing out furniture on pool decks and frequently sanitizing locker rooms, the actual opening and operating decisions are made on a local level.
  • Reopening plans are related to how severe COVID-19 outbreaks have been in a particular area.

As parts of the country begin to reopen ahead of the summer months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidelines on May 20 specifically for pools and other water attractions.

Can COVID-19 Spread in Water?

There isn't any evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through recreational water activities, according to the CDC. Good water sanitation is key, though, and disinfectants like chlorine are the primary way to prevent the spread of germs, including viruses, in water. It's also important to maintain standard safe swimming practices, such as:

  • Not swimming with an opening wound
  • Not swimming with a contagious infection (pink eye, hepatitis A)
  • Not sharing pool or beach towels
  • Showering before swimming

You should also continue social distancing while in the water. COVID-19 is thought to spread primarily through close person-to-person contact, particularly through respiratory droplets produced by coughing and sneezing. Keeping your distance from others is important.

Federal Guidance From the CDC

While the CDC has issued guidance on swimming safety as COVID-19 continues to circulate, the agency has made it clear that the final decision on opening and operating swimming areas will be up to the counties, cities, schools, and other organizations that oversee them.

For regions that are allowing pools and swimming areas to reopen, the CDC has set out specific recommendations for hygiene and disinfection to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Recommendations for Pools and Facility Staff

  • Access to hand hygiene: Encourage staff and swimmers to wash hands frequently. Make sure adequate soap and sanitizer supplies are available.
  • Clean and disinfect: High-touch surfaces should be cleaned frequently. The CDC recommends using EPA-approved disinfectants made specifically for each type of aquatic facility. Separate and label clean furniture and equipment from items that still need to be disinfected. Be sure to use proper ventilation and safety measures when using disinfectants and other chemicals.
  • Promote good ventilation: Introduce and circulate outside air into indoor water facilities as much as possible using fans and other devices.
  • Rearrange furniture and layouts: Change the spacing of furniture or the layout on pool decks to promote social distancing of at least 6 feet. Social distancing is recommended both in and out of the water.
  • Implement physical barriers: Use physical barriers and visual cues to promote social distancing. This may include taped areas on pool decks or signs to remain 6 feet apart.
  • Stagger shifts and shared space use: Communal spaces like dressing areas, locker rooms, and staff break rooms should be disinfected often, and use of these shared spaces should be staggered when possible. Employers may also consider staggered shifts for employees.
  • Offer education: Post signs and make loudspeaker announcements offering advice on preventing the spread of infection.
  • Train staff: With the exception of active lifeguards, staff at swimming areas should be watching to make sure patrons are using face coverings, practicing hand hygiene, and social distancing. Designate a specific staff member to address concerns about COVID-19.
  • Staff safety: Be sure to have plans to accommodate sick employees so that they aren't encouraged to come to work sick. Make a plan for call-offs and backup staffing, and monitor the health of all workers.
  • Consider limitations: Facilities may want to remove or temporarily close some structures, such as climbing or playing units.
  • Wait to wash: If a facility does have a confirmed COVID-19 case, affected areas should be closed, and the facility should wait 24 hours to perform cleaning and disinfection.

Recommendations for Visitors

  • Cover coughs: Staff and swimmers should be sure to practice good respiratory etiquette and cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Face coverings: Face coverings should be encouraged, especially when social distancing is difficult. Face coverings should not be worn in the water while swimming.
  • Stop sharing: The use of shared items like pool toys, flotation devices, and food should be discouraged. If items are shared, they should be disinfected between each use.
  • No parties: Know your local regulations on large gatherings both in and out of the water, and avoid large gatherings. When large gatherings do happen—like swim lessons—considered staggered pick-up and drop-off times.
  • Stay home if you're sick: Don't go to work or go swimming if you've been exposed to or have been diagnosed with COVID-19.
  • Report and react: All facilities should know their local process for reporting and responding to confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Local Decisions

Organizations that operate swimming pools and aquatic parks should check with their local public health departments before reopening. Reopening practices have varied widely across the country, with some local governments waiting to make a final decision.

In most cases, reopening plans are related to how severe COVID-19 outbreaks have been in a given area. Here are three unique examples.

New York

New York has had the most COVID-19 cases of anywhere in the country, with more than 366,000 confirmed cases as of late May and a high concentration of those in New York City. While New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed beaches at state parks to open at 50% capacity over Memorial Day weekend, public pools will remain closed until further notice.

In New York City, officials have kept all pools, parks, recreation centers, and public beaches closed.

Ohio

Ohio, which had about 31,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of late May, announced that pools could reopen May 22 as long as certain safety measures were in place, including:

  • Placing physical barriers both in and out of the pool to maintain social distancing
  • Implementing a reduced maximum capacity
  • Discouraging or prohibiting sharing items like goggles or snorkels
  • Disinfecting high-touch areas every two hours
  • Disinfecting all rental equipment after each use

Montana

In Montana—which had just 479 cases in late May—pools were allowed to open on May 15, allowing 50% capacity as long as social distancing and other safety measures remain in place.

"The CDC has indicated that properly maintained pool water inactivates the virus," Montana officials wrote in a statement on behalf of Gov. Steve Bullock. "It is critical that pools that have been shut down during this time or reduced maintenance follow proper reopening procedures and sampling to ensure the water is safe for use before reopening."

A Word From Verywell

The federal government has left decisions regarding opening swimming areas to local governments and health authorities, but offered a number of recommendations to make reopening as safe as possible. Review recommendations from your local health department before swimming, and always follow other safe swimming guidelines.

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Article Sources
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  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 and Water. Updated May 24, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Swimming: Publications, Data, & Statistics. Updated May 15, 2020.

  4. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. How to Protect Yourself and Others. Updated April 24, 2020.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How COVID-19 Spreads. Updated May 22, 2020.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cleaning and disinfecting. Updated May 21, 2020.

  7. Environmental Protection Agency. List N: Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2. n.d.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cases in the U.S. Updated May 27, 2020.

  9. New York State. Swimming. Updated 2020.

  10. City of New York. Important Parks Department Service Changes Due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). May 28, 2020.

  11. Ohio Department of Health. Responsible Restart Ohio: Local and Public Pools and Aquatic Centers. Updated May 26.

  12. Montana.gov. Governor Bullock Announces Additional Phase One Guidelines to Include Gyms, Movie Theaters, and Museums. Updated May 7.

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