An Expert Explains What You Should Know Before Going Swimming This Summer

A person sits with her feet dangling in an outdoor pool, facing away from the camera. As the tempera...
agrobacter/E+/Getty Images

Temperatures are rising and some beaches are starting to re-open. The idea of heading outdoors and diving into a crisp body of water sounds like even more of a luxury this year than it usually does. But if you're looking forward to your literal moment in the sun, you might be wondering if it's even safe to swim during the pandemic this summer.

"The likelihood of spread in an ocean is low," says Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., a clinical instructor of medicine and immunology at NYU Langone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there's no evidence that COVID spreads through the water that you'd find in pools, hot tubs, spas, or sprinklers. Though there isn't much existing data on the subject, Dr. Elliot says that the same seems to apply to the ocean. So if you're planning to head out to your favorite newly re-opened shoreline and diving in, the surf itself will probably be safe.

It's important to remember, though, that there's more to a trip to the ocean than just the water. If you're going to the beach during the pandemic, it's the other people on the shore you need to worry about. "Don't make the beach a destination for a group hangout, party, or event," Dr. Elliot cautions. "The fewer people you are with, the better. Stick to your immediate family. Avoid using public facilities such as restrooms or concession stands. These areas will be COVID breeding grounds."

As always when you're heading out these days, hand sanitizer is great to have with you, and keep at least six feet of distance between you and other folks. So far, beaches that are re-opening have restrictions. Walking, swimming, and jogging (AKA, non-stationary activities) are allowed, but settling in for the day is generally discouraged. So go for a dive, but don't plan to spread out your towel and settle in for sunbathing afterward. Make sure to check your local regulations before you grab your sunscreen.

Juan Ramírez García / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

The beach isn't the only place you might be hoping to swim this summer. Since the CDC says that COVID likely can't spread to people through pool water, it's tempting use this as a green light to jump off the diving board. But Dr. Elliot says it's more complicated than that. "Small pool or hot tub surfaces have a higher likelihood of spread," she tells Bustle. This isn't because of the water itself, but because public pools are communal facilities. Dr. Elliot says that locker rooms, bathrooms, and even public surfaces like countertops — and, alas, the outer surfaces of pools — are very risky. The person who used the locker before you might have taken their mask off while changing, and all that breathing residue is now on your locker... you get the idea.

Aha, you might think, but my apartment complex has a pool, and I can dive in when no one else is around! But remember that public surfaces are still public — and therefore, risky — even if they're "only" shared by other people in your complex.

Additionally, not all pools are created (or maintained) equally, so exercise caution in your home-based pool, as well. The chlorine that's responsible for keeping pools virus-free is often contaminated through exposure to sweat, pee, and deodorant. In other words, human bodies tend to decrease the amount of chlorine in pools, which the CDC says reduces the pool's ability to kill germs fast. That might not be too concerning in regular times — or if your property manager is extremely diligent about maintaining constant chlorine levels — but during the pandemic, it's probably best to use extra caution.

Social distancing on a relatively un-populated beach and then diving into the ocean might be the safest way to get your swim on this summer


Dr. Tania Elliott, M.D., clinical instructor of medicine and immunology, NYU Langone