Summertime is in full swing but, unfortunately, so is a new surge in coronavirus cases as the pandemic stretches on. And that’s left a lot of people seeking relief from the heat in a weird limbo, wondering whether or not their regular summer routines are safe.
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Whatever your summer water routine is — trips to the beach or the neighborhood pool — the fear of contracting the virus is prevalent for many. Just how much danger do these activities pose?
To sort it out we spoke with pulmonary and critical care physician Joseph Khabbaza, MD, about the risks you should consider before heading out to your local swimming hole.
The water’s fine
The good news: it’s extremely unlikely for coronavirus to be transmitted by water.
“Pools are safe because the virus does not spread by water,” Dr. Khabbaza says. “Even if the virus is in a chlorinated pool and that pool water gets in your eyes, you’re not really in danger. It has not been shown to be a way of transmission of the virus.”
“Once the virus enters chlorinated water, it’s unlikely it’s going to have any kind of meaningful viability, even if it’s a very small amount of chlorinated water,” he adds.
The real danger: the people
What will put you at risk, though, is everyone around you, according to Dr. Khabbaza. “We have to remember the primary way this virus is spread and that’s generally by respiratory droplets,” he says.
Whether it’s by picking up droplets with the virus by touching a surface and then our face or by being in close proximity to a carrier who’s directly propelling droplets to your eyes, nose or mouth, it’s these droplets that cause the spread, he says.
This makes social distancing measures and hygiene key to preventing infection if you’re at a public pool. The risks can be lowered depending on distancing measures and capacity limits put in place at each pool, but it’s also about the distance you keep between yourself and others.
“The main way for the virus to be transmitted,” Dr. Khabbaza says, “is if somebody that’s infected is standing too close to you, that sustained close contact.”
What about beaches?
The risks of transmitting the virus at a public beach are similar to that of a public pool: the virus is going to be transmitted by people, not by water. Just as the virus doesn’t survive very well in the chlorinated waters of a swimming pool, it has the same struggles at beaches.
“The virus probably doesn’t live very well in just water so it’s not going to live well in chlorinated water,” Dr. Khabbaza says. “And that goes, too, for larger natural bodies of water and saltwater, like at beaches. None of these respiratory viruses have been described to be transmitted in a waterborne fashion.”
If you’re on the beach and you’ve got plenty of space between you and everyone else, you’re relatively safe for some fun in the sun. “If you’re sitting in a little circle of your family on the towels or if it’s just your small social circle and you’re adequately spaced from others, a mask is not really necessary in a setting where you’re able to physically distance from others in an outdoor environment,” he notes.
Of course, anyone who’s ever been to any beach during the summer knows that social distancing is a pretty rare thing and cramming yourself within a few feet of the family next to you may significantly increase your risk factor.
The best form of protection is physical distancing. Keeping that proper amount of space between you and everyone else at the pool or beach will go a long way to helping you mitigate the risk of transmission. That, sadly, includes skipping a visit if it’s just too crowded to safely do so.
If you venture out, here are other ways to keep you and your loved ones safe.
Wearing a mask
If you do make your way to some public waters for a dip, Dr. Khabbaza recommends bringing a mask even though you won’t be wearing it all the time. ‘It’s not feasible to wear a mask in the water,” he says. “Once it gets wet, that makes it very difficult to breathe.”
Instead, he says, wear the mask when you’re moving around in public areas. “When you’re sitting around your family or your trusted small social circle, you don’t really need to wear a mask. But when you’re going to the bathroom or a concession stand, a setting where you’re going to be around people you don’t know and in closer proximity to others, that’s when a mask would be advised.”
He also adds that, though transmission risks are generally lower outdoors, you should wear a mask if people start crowding in on your space. “Even if you’re with your family but it feels a bit crowded or the distancing doesn’t feel right. If you’re too close to other people, a mask should be worn,” he adds.
Wash your hands
Washing your hands has been recommended so many times during the pandemic that a lot of people are probably tired of hearing it. But there’s a reason good hygiene is a cornerstone of protection: because it works.
Keeping your hands and the surrounding surfaces clean is hugely important, especially given the nature of shared surfaces at a public pool. “After spending time in those shared common areas like a concession stand, be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer,” Dr. Khabbaza says
Sanitize, sanitize, sanitize
Besides bringing hand sanitizer with you to the pool, he also suggests sanitizing wipes. “Bring your own wipes so you can wipe down any chairs or common tables you’ll be using,” Dr. Khabbaza says.
But it’s not just furniture you’ll want to make sure you keep wiped down. “If you’re renting equipment like paddle boards, it’s an extra layer of protection to wipe them down before you use them, even if they’re being sanitized at your pool,” Dr. Khabbaza suggests.
“It’s not the droplets from the pool water you should be concerned about, but rather any droplets from someone else that gets on that equipment,” he adds. “And it’s a good idea to sanitize your own personal equipment, like goggles, before using them.”