The safest way to go swimming during the pandemic

Stay away from other people as much as possible, be it by the pool or on a party boat.
Women and children at the pool.

Try to only pool party with your pandemic crew. Photo by Yulianto Poitier from Pexels

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It’s almost the Fourth of July, which means it’s time to break out the grill and mini American flags and have fun in the sun. If it were a normal year, you probably wouldn’t think twice about hosting your annual pool party, gathering up with all your buddies at the beach, or piling as many people as possible on a boat for a ride on the lake.

This year is different, though, for the obvious reason that most any social activity can lead to getting infected with COVID-19 or passing it on to your loved ones. And that’s enough to make it pour on your Fourth of July parade.

For the swimmers among us, there’s no proof right now that the coronavirus can be transmitted through the water, so taking a dip over the weekend or even later this summer isn’t totally off the table. But throwing on a sassy swimsuit doesn’t mean throwing out your social distancing rules. “The concern I have is that people get the impression that the water is probably safe, so all other risks have gone away as well,” says Chip Blatchely, a professor of environmental engineering at Purdue. “That’s just not true.”

To help you get your toes pruney and keep you relatively safe, PopSci broke down which watery wonderland might be the best option for you and your family as both summer and COVID-19 rage on.

Riskiest: the public pool

Your neighborhood pool, full of kids splashing and screaming, is probably the most virus-prone swimming spot you’ll come across. Even though chlorine is an effective pathogen killer, the big problem here is space. Just think about it … there’s a lot of things you have to do before you dip in and out of the water, including walking through a poorly ventilated locker room and using a community shower.

“There are certainly risks of exposure there,” Blatchely says. And once you jump into the pool, there are things to consider as well.

If you’re just doing your workout laps, you probably aren’t interacting with people all that much. But if you’re playing chicken and splashing around, there’s a decent chance you’ll end up touching each other or at least yelling and breathing on each other. As for toys, diving boards, and ladders, the more people that touch them, the more likely they are to encounter something infectious. Just like hand-rails on public stairways, it’s probably a wise idea to avoid touching things in the pool unless you really need them.

One solution to this dilemma is heading to a more private pool, like one that might be in a friend’s backyard. But that’s not a perfect plan, either. If you haven’t already included this friend in your COVID-19 social bubble, you’d be putting yourself and them at risk if you go about pool play as usual. And of course, accessibility to these spaces is a big issue.

If you do go to the pool, be it public or private, make sure you’re wearing a mask when you’re not swimming (especially in the locker room), keep hand sanitizer on you, and stay a safe six feet away from swimmers outside of your household.

Riskier: the beach

In some parts of the US, a pool isn’t even an option due to pandemic precautions. In that case, natural bodies of water might be calling your name.

When it comes to the beach, Carl Fichtenbaum, an infectious disease expert at the University of Cincinnati, thinks it’s an “outstanding” idea for something to do over the Fourth of July. It’s outside, and there should be lots of opportunities to social distance. But you can’t forget to stay away from people just because there’s a large body of water around you, he says. Stick with your COVID-19 social group, and keep at least six feet of distance from other beachgoers, even when you’re wading in the lake or ocean. If you roll up to the beach and there’s hardly enough space to park or lay down a towel, you probably should look elsewhere for a sunbathing spot.

Fichtenbaum also recommends wearing a mask when walking through the parking lot or going up to a concession stand, much like you would in other public spots. Keep hand sanitizer on you in case you want to have a beachside snack, and try not to share towels or equipment with other people.

As for equipment rentals, like a paddleboard or snorkeling gear, save your curiosity for next summer. When outfitters are loaning gear out to members of the public, you don’t really know how well it’s being cleaned, which makes it a potential hotbed for COVID-19 transmission. Bring your own personal stuff if you’re dead set on going surfing or exploring and disinfect it thoroughly before your next beach trip.

What worries Fichtenbaum, especially about going to the beach, is the nightlife scene. He stresses that vacationers should keep being smart on and off the beach and avoid barhopping and going to concerts, no matter how fun they sound.

Risky: the boat

A boat seems like the perfect social-distancing vessel if it’s just you and your household. You’re out on the water far away from everybody, catching your rays and cannon balling without much chance that someone will pop your personal bubble.

Still, Fichtenbaum warns that not all seagoing adventures are pandemic approved. While some folks might be lucky enough to have their own spacious fishing boat or a lake pontoon, not everyone is on the same ship. After all, motorized vessels are costly, and if you don’t live close to the water 24/7, it’s probably not at the top of your shopping list.

Also, be wary of group boat settings. As fun as it is to take a ride on the water, if you’re crammed on a ferry or yacht with a bunch of people, social distancing can be nightmarish. If you’re lucky enough to have a giant boat—or an invitation to get on one—don’t hit the high seas with everyone in your phone contacts. Just think about how messy cruises have been during this pandemic, and learn from the tragic mistakes.

The rule of thumb for taking a swim is the ability to social distance wherever you are, be it the ocean or the pool. Staying extra safe will give us even more reason to celebrate in the holidays to come.