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Is it safe to go to public pools this summer?

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Memorial Day, aka the unofficial start of summer, is just a few weeks away. And while life is definitely different right now than it was this time last year, people still want to celebrate summer the usual way, such as by going to the beach or pool.

But that raises a huge question: Is it still safe to go to public pools this summer?

Will scenes like this one, of a public pool in Queens, New York, be a source of great risk this summer? (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Will scenes like this one, of a public pool in Queens, New York, be a source of great risk this summer? (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“Most outdoor pools have never been open when we’ve had COVID-19 around,” Dr. David Cutler, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “There’s no way to know for sure what the consequences are.”

COVID-19 is “just as contagious now as in March,” Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University, tells Yahoo Life. And, he says, that’s a concern with public pools.

So how safe is it?

It’s impossible to say that going to a public pool is “safe,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Yahoo Life. “Instead, you have to ask yourself, ‘What’s the risk?’” he says. A public pool is an area where plenty of people gather, he points out, and that’s concerning.

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “You have to worry about crowds and commonly touched surfaces,” he says. “Those are always going to pose a risk, whether at the pool or park.”

The water itself doesn’t seem to be an issue, though. "The virus can't live in the chlorinated water, so the risk is still airborne," Dr. Henry F. Raymond, associate director for public health at the Rutgers School of Public Health, tells Yahoo Life.

A particular concern to experts is the common myth that you can’t catch COVID-19 in hot weather — and it’s something the World Health Organization (WHO) recently addressed in its “myth busters” section on the virus. “You can catch COVID-19, no matter how sunny or hot the weather is,” the WHO says. “Countries with hot weather have reported cases of COVID-19.”

However, it’s understandable why people might be confused. Preliminary results from government lab experiments obtained by Yahoo News in April show that the coronavirus does not survive long in high temperatures and high humidity, and is quickly destroyed by sunlight. William Bryan, the acting head of the Science and Technology Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security, also said in a press conference in late April that sunlight, heat and humidity weaken SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Still, experts warn that it doesn’t mean your risk of contracting COVID-19 at a public pool is zero. “When it is sunny out in the next few months, that may cause less surface transmission of the virus,” Adalja says. “But it’s not necessarily going to be zero. It also doesn’t mean there won’t be human-to-human transmission.” Watkins is concerned this could lead to more outbreaks of the virus across the country. “Magical thinking is going to lead to a lot of cases in the coming months,” he says.

As for whether it’s safer to go to a public pool, community pool or indoor pool, Cutler says it’s impossible to know. “It comes down to crowds,” he says. But, he adds, “it might be easier to stay six feet away from someone in an outdoor pool versus an indoor pool because of space around the pool.” Air circulation is also important, Raymond says, adding, “Open air allows the virus particles to blow away and fall to the ground.”

What precautions should you take if you visit your local pool?

If you decide to visit a public pool, experts say there are a few things you can do to stay as safe as possible:

  • Keep your distance from others. The six-feet social distancing rule still applies here, Adalja says.

  • Encourage children to steer clear from others. Schaffner admits this is tough to enforce, but he says that children playing together in any setting comes with a risk of contracting COVID-19.

  • Try to avoid commonly-touched surfaces. Pool chairs, handrails, tables and other commonly-touched surfaces are places where the virus can live, Adalja says.

  • Try to steer clear of common entry areas. Again, the goal is to avoid commonly-touched areas, as well as bottlenecks of people, Adalja says. (Instead, for example, try lowering yourself in and hoisting yourself out on the side of the pool, if you’re able.)

  • Visit during off-hours. In a perfect world, pools would try to space out how many people are allowed to visit during a certain time, Schaffner says. But, if your local pool doesn’t do this, he recommends trying to visit when it’s less crowded than usual.

  • Wear a mask. Sure, it’s not a typical summer look, but Raymond says that wearing a mask when you’re hanging around the pool deck may help.

Experts say that people with underlying health conditions should think twice before visiting a public pool this summer. “Maybe this is a summer where you don’t go to the pool,” Schaffner says.

Bottom line: There is some risk of contracting COVID-19 if you use a public pool this summer. “Nothing is going to be risk-free, and people are going to have to come up with their own way of coping with risk,” Adalja says. “There’s going to be a risk every time you go out,” Schaffner says. “The question is, how risk-tolerant are you?”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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