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Is it safe to swim during the coronavirus pandemic?

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Is it safe to go swim in public pools during the COVID-19 outbreak? How about lakes, rivers, and oceans?

There are few better ways to stay in shape or beat the heat than swimming. But fears about COVID-19 have scared many people off because of the risk of exposure to the virus in the water plus fears of the inevitable crowds.

In fact, infectious disease experts say that swimming, in itself, is low risk. What people have to be careful about is what happens outside the water: the socializing with friends, sharing of towels, and using locker rooms.

To state the obvious: When outside of the water and near others, it’s important to wear a mask. But people shouldn’t wear them while swimming, because, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blandly notes, “Masks can be difficult to breathe through when they’re wet.”

Here’s what you need to know about swimming during the coronavirus era:

Is swimming in public pools safe?

Because most well-maintained public pools contain chlorine and salt, the chances of contacting the coronavirus in them is very low, said Dr. Ellen Eaton, a University of Alabama at Birmingham assistant professor who focuses on infectious diseases. As she explained, the water in a well-maintained public pool “should kill the virus.”

The virus is typically spread through droplets in the air when people sneeze, cough, or speak closely to one another, according to the Harvard Medical School. To avoid that risk, swimmers should stay six-feet apart while outside the pool, Eaton said.

She’s more concerned about activities around swimming pools, like changing clothes in a locker room or waiting in line at concessions stands. 

When Eaton takes her family to the public pool (“to keep my boys sane,” she said) she tries to “go first thing in the morning” or later during the evenings to avoid crowds. She said her family gives each other plenty of space, they don’t have meals with others at the pool, and they don’t “sit under other people’s umbrellas.”

Dr. Wilbur Chen, an adult infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said that there have been some cases of coronavirus outbreaks at pools due to behavior outside the water like big pool parties when young adults fail to follow common sense.

Of course, parents should make sure that kids don’t spit water at each other’s faces.

“I’m not saying it’s easy,” Chen said.

Is swimming in the ocean safe?

The good news about swimming in the ocean, or any large body of water, is that “the volume is so expansive that it would be really impossible for any significant quantity of the virus to be inhaled” in the water, Eaton said.

Still, just like at the swimming pool, you should avoid crowded beaches and sitting close to people outside of your bubble. And it’s a bad idea to share drinks with others and sit on another person’s towel.

Unfortunately, lifeguards who monitor beaches and pools are at risk of contracting COVID-19, because of the chance they must perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on people who are infected with the virus, both Chen and Eaton said.

“They have to put their lives on the line for people who might be going to the beach and they might have COVID,” Chen said. 

Is swimming in lakes and rivers safe?

Just like public pools and the ocean, swimming in lakes and rivers should be safe, “as long as it’s not a crowded situation,” Chen said. He typically tries not to swim within 15 feet of anyone else to avoid running into them.

“You can maintain that distance in a river,” Chen said.

He said he’s not as concerned with catching the virus in the water, but rather from other activities, like toweling off next to someone else. Keep in mind that inner tubing or canoeing may put people too close together.

Ultimately, Chen said that physical activity is healthy as long as people take the necessary precautions.

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