Memorial Day awaits: How to stay safe from COVID at the pool or beach

Cindy Krischer Goodman
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Azure Boxley, 7, right, looks on as Quea Hart, 8, both of York City, jumps into the pool at Graham Aquatic Center-YMCA in York City, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — On the verge of Memorial Day weekend, people are asking whether they’re safe from COVID-19 as they cool off in the ocean or pool.

Lifeguards and swim coaches are getting questions like this one from Erica Garcia of Fort Lauderdale: “Is it safe for my unvaccinated child to go into a public pool?”

A new online survey of 2,000 American adults by the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance found 70% plan to swim in a pool this summer, but more than half said they are worried about the spread of COVID-19.

“It’s hot, and we want to go swimming,” Garcia said. “But I don’t want to put my children at risk.”

The risk is much lower for vaccinated people, but unvaccinated people — including children under 12 — should use caution as they flock to the beach or pool, experts say.

The pool is open at Graham Aquatic Center-YMCA in York City, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Here’s what you should know:

  • COVID-19 doesn’t spread to people through water or the ocean breeze.
  • Wearing a face mask in the pool or ocean is dangerous.
  • You can get COVID from getting too close to someone in the pool or on the beach.
  • The right chlorine levels are crucial to ensuring germs don’t spread in pools.
  • Most beach and poolside lifeguards will not be wearing masks in their stands.

Cindy Prins, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, says that what happens above the pool water, not below, is what could put you at risk for COVID.

Water dilutes the effect of the coronavirus, she said. “Even if someone sneezes into the water, it disperses and the amounts won’t be significant enough for you to get it from the water.”

“If people are crowding around a pool, especially an indoor pool, you could be at risk,” Prins said. “You need to maintain a distance from people when you don’t know their vaccine status.”

Social distancing is key: After Memorial Day, many public pools will be open, with longer days and fewer restrictions on how many people can be on pool decks and in swim lanes.

If you have children, they should keep at least a 6-foot distance from others in and out of the pool. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate the distance as “a few inches longer than a typical pool noodle.”

At the eight YMCA centers in South Florida, Tara Montenaro said parents want to know about social distancing measures at the pool. “They want to know about how we are handling locker rooms and swim lessons and social distancing on the pool deck.”

The pool is open at Graham Aquatic Center-YMCA in York City, Wednesday, June 10, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The CDC says when swimming pools are properly maintained, the chlorine in the water should “inactivate” the coronavirus and prevent it from spreading.

What to know at the beach: Early in the pandemic, researchers studied whether you could get COVID from simply sitting on the sand or walking on the beach and breathing in the ocean air. They looked at areas where ocean water mixes with untreated wastewater contaminated by the virus and whether ocean waves could aerosolize the virus into particles and coastal winds could carry it back to shore.

That theory did not pan out.

“COVID is a respiratory virus,” said Dr. Roy Vore, an Atlanta microbiologist specializing in recreational water management and public health. “You have to be near someone and breathe it in.”

Vore recommends wearing a mask on a crowded beach to avoid breathing the virus in. Take it off, though, before heading into the ocean.

“It will get moist and block the filtration process so it is worthless,” he said. “But the second reason is masks increase breathing difficulty. If you’re not a strong swimmer and trying to get air, a wet cloth could be serious danger.”