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by Elaine K Howley

May 28, 2020

Here are nine ways to empower yourself as pools are reopening around the country

As summer begins, pandemic-related restrictions regarding the safe operation of swimming pools are beginning to ease. In some locations, this means pools are now getting the green light to open up. Welcome relief for many Masters swimmers to be sure, but there are a few things you should know before you go swimming at your pool.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on May 20 outlining recommended guidelines for reopening of pool facilities. These protocols aim to keep pool users safe and reduce the onward spread of the novel coronavirus. Follow the CDC’s guidelines to put the power of staying safe and healthy back into your own hands.

The Power of Chlorine

First, the good news. So far as we know—and that’s based on scientific evidence derived from studies of other, similar lipid-enveloped coronaviruses that behave like the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—this virus is susceptible to the disinfecting power of chlorine. In other words, you’re not going to get sick from the pool water, provided the pool chemicals are properly maintained.

And a point of note: Pools that feature a saltwater disinfection system also contain chlorine believed to be enough to deactivate the coronavirus. Through a process called electrolysis, the salt atoms are slit into chlorine and sodium. As such, saltwater pools use chlorine—in a less smelly way—to stay clean.

Other forms of pool disinfectant, such as bromine and ozone, are also believed to render the coronavirus harmless, so there’s no reason to believe that you can contract the virus from properly disinfected pool water no matter the exact way in which that sanitization is achieved.

The Power of Social Distancing

When it comes to spreading the virus, the water isn’t the issue. Rather, it’s the people you meet en route to and from the pool, in the locker room, on deck, and at the end of your lane you have to worry about. An asymptomatic carrier of the disease can infect you just through talking with you and sharing breathing space. This is why social distancing—also called physical distancing—is such an important weapon against the coronavirus.

You know the drill by now: You have to keep physical distance between yourself and people who aren’t members of your household to slow the spread of the virus. Social distancing is defined as staying a minimum of 6 feet away from anyone who’s not a household member. This is for your safety as well as to protect others you may come into contact with. You cannot know whether someone you meet at the pool is an asymptomatic carrier of the virus or has yet to show symptoms of infection.

As such, it’s like Schrödinger’s cat experiment, the famous thought experiment in which a cat closed in a box with something that could kill it (such as a radioactive substance) must be considered both dead and alive simultaneously until the box is opened because it can’t be observed to be either alive or dead for certain. This virus is an unseen enemy, and you cannot know anyone’s (including your own) infection status at any given moment. Therefore, you should proceed as though everyone is a viral Schrodinger’s cat: They simultaneously have the virus and will infect you, but are also highly vulnerable to infection if you’re a carrier.

The Power of Face Masks

As noted by social distancing rules, it’s known that the virus passes readily from person to person via aerosolized droplets expelled from the lungs. These aerosolized droplets can hang in the air for eight to 14 minutes, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences of the United States of America. This means that if you’re in close contact with someone who has the virus—even if that close contact means you’re just standing within a couple feet of each other indoors speaking for several minutes—the virus can be transmitted to you. Consider how long you might stand chatting with a swimming friend at your local indoor pool. Suddenly, that very mundane activity seems a whole lot riskier.

Therefore, the CDC is now advising that everyone wear a face mask when in public spaces. Especially if your pool is indoors or you can’t maintain social distancing, wear a cloth face mask. This means you should wear a mask while you’re in the lobby, the locker room, the restroom, and on deck. (You can also avoid the locker room altogether by wearing your swimsuit to and from your workout.)

The CDC warns against wearing a mask while you’re swimming, obviously, because “cloth face coverings can be difficult to breathe through when they’re wet.” But wearing one when you’re out of the water can help cut down on the number of your germs that reach other people and the number of someone else’s germs that can reach you.

The Power of Keeping Germs to Yourself

Your mom was right when she would admonish you as a kid and tell you to always cover your coughs and sneezes. Now more than ever, that simple and polite advice has become a key component of public health initiatives.

At the pool, it’s just as important as anywhere else. If you end up coughing or sneezing—it’s allergy season after all, and not every cough or sneeze is related to COVID-19—you must contain those germs. If you’re wearing a mask, that helps. Even so, always, always, always cough or sneeze into a tissue that you dispose of properly. Wash your hands immediately. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow. Keep your germs—whether they may contain coronavirus or not—to yourself.

The Power of Self-Care

If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, such as a cough or a fever, or you feel unwell, or like you might have a cold, skip your swim. Even if you’re convinced it’s just allergies, it’s hard to be certain right now. So err on the side of caution and stay home if you’re coughing or sneezing, have body aches, or have a fever.

Normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees. A temperature higher than that means you should stay home on the off chance that you have the coronavirus and that fever is the first symptom.

Some facilities may be checking patrons’ temperatures before granting access to the building. If you register too high to be permitted to swim, be polite about it and just go home. Fighting with the person working the door isn’t helpful and could have lasting repercussions for your permission to access the pool in the future.

The Power of Clean

Although the CDC is recommending that all pools provide “adequate supplies to support healthy hygiene,” such as soap, hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, paper towels, tissues, and no-touch trash cans, cautious pool-goers might want to bring their own stash. Consider adding to your swim bag a package of disinfecting wipes to clean surfaces you touch or to disinfect surfaces you come into contact with if you aren’t sure how recently the area was last sanitized.

Pools are also being instructed to set up a system to keep furniture clean and disinfected and to launder any fabric patrons come into contact with after each use. Each facility will establish its own disinfecting protocol, but handrails, slides, ladders, doorknobs, light switches, lounge chairs, tables, pool noodles, kickboards, restroom surfaces, handwashing stations, showers, and diaper-changing stations all must be disinfected regularly.

You might consider bringing your own gear, such as fins or a kickboard, instead of using communal items. You might also consider skipping the towel-lending service if your gym has one, just to be on the safe side and eliminate another potential point of contact.

The power of cleanliness extends to your own hands too. Some facilities will require that you wash your hands thoroughly when you enter the building. You should do it then, and you should wash your hands again when you first get home. If a sink, soap, and warm water isn’t readily accessible, bring a bottle of hand sanitizer. Hand hygiene is one of the most effective ways to keep yourself healthy from this and virtually all other pathogens.

The Power of Your Own Gear

We’ve all done it—a friend turns up in the locker room and realizes she left her swimsuit at home. Or her goggles. Or her cap rips and she needs a spare. You’ve got half a dozen in your bag, so you lend her one. It’s so easy and would normally be the civic-minded thing to do. But right now, don’t do it. There’s still so much we don’t know for certain about just how long the virus can survive on surfaces of various porosity. Putting yourself or your friend at risk isn’t worth it. It’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid sharing any personal gear with anyone who isn’t a member of your household.

The Power of Listening

In addition to their standard level of care and authority to enforce the rules of the pool and keep patrons safe from drowning and accidents in and around the pool, lifeguards are also going to be tasked with enforcing physical distancing rules and other protocols related to managing patrons returning to the pool during this pandemic. These new rules are established by the facility to keep you and other patrons safe.

It’s important that you listen and respect the hard work these individuals are being asked to do during this crisis. Lifeguards didn’t sign up to be on the front lines in coping with COVID-19, but if they have to assist a patron who’s infected, that’s exactly where they’ll end up. Care for them and your fellow pool-goers by listening and paying attention to the rules.

Also make note of new signage at the pool. The CDC is instructing facilities to post highly visible signs advising patrons about how best to stop the spread. Pay attention and follow this guidance.

The Power of Knowing

Contact tracing is a particularly powerful aspect of containing this highly contagious virus. As part of the CDC’s guidelines, pools will designate a point of contact to help manage the notification process when a pool patron tests positive for COVID-19.

In support of these efforts, many pools will require you to record your name, contact details, and dates, times, and duration of your attendance at the pool every time you swim. This will help the point of contact be able to alert you later if someone who was at the pool at the same time as you tests positive for COVID-19.

If you test positive after having been to the pool (within the previous 14 days), you should let that point of contact know as soon as possible so that they can alert anyone else who was there at the same time that they could have been exposed. That point of contact will also notify public health authorities.

If you’re on the receiving end of one of those calls, contact your health care provider and isolate yourself for a minimum of 14 days.

A Final Note

The CDC clearly states that “all decisions about implementing these considerations should be made locally, in collaboration with local health officials.” This means that by design, there will be some variation from pool to pool as management works to provide the safest experience for patrons based on conditions in your area.

If you’re unsure whether your pool should be open or is operating safely, you can call your local public health office for guidance. If you have questions about a certain policy, contact your facility’s manager. And you can always access more information about this and much more public health advice by visiting the CDC’s coronavirus website. Though we might feel somewhat powerless in stopping this crisis, in truth, each person can play a role in preventing the onward retransmission of the virus.


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