Pools Will Test the Limits of Social Distancing

Yes, you’ll have to stay six feet apart even when you’re in the water.

Diana Markosian / Magnum

The thwarted swimmers feel like beached mermaids. People who love swimming have been writing to Bonnie Tsui, the author of the recent swimming ode Why We Swim, to tell her how much they miss the pool, the beach, or the lake, now that they’re quarantined.

For lots of people, swimming feels like not just a summer pastime, but a ritual that cleanses the body of temporal woes. According to researchers Tsui interviewed, when people rank the enjoyability of different forms of exercise, swimming routinely comes out on top. Water is both comforting and energizing; it clears the mind and buoys the soul. “It’s something that for me is not just the enjoyment; it’s also the tonic of it,” Tsui told me. “It is the medicine that I need to feel like a better person.”

Tsui, who lives in Northern California, considers herself fortunate. Though the local community pool where she typically swims four days a week has been closed since March 15 because of the pandemic, she’s still able to swim in the San Francisco Bay. But this summer, millions of American swimmers won’t be so lucky. They’ll be hot, pool-less, and—thankfully, but perhaps not happily—safer from COVID-19 for it. Even in areas where public pools do open this summer, swimmers may have a very different pool experience than they’re used to. For the time being, a pool day might feel less like a mini-vacation and more like a weird exercise class, complete with masks.

The coronavirus can’t remain infectious in pool water, multiple experts assured me, but people who come to pools do not stay in the water the entire time. They get out, sit under the sun, and, if they’re like my neighbors, form a circle and drink a few illicit White Claws. Social-distancing guidelines are quickly forgotten.

“If someone is swimming laps, that would be pretty safe as long as they’re not spitting water everywhere,” says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University. “But a Las Vegas–type pool party, that would be less safe, because people are just hanging out and breathing on each other.”

In areas with few confirmed coronavirus cases, it’s tempting to simply throw open the pool gates and hope for the best. Outdoor areas, like pools or parks, are thought to have a lower risk of coronavirus transmission than indoor spaces. Many Americans have had enough of quarantining, and a few summer pool days may help release our pent-up energy ahead of another potential wave of shutdowns in the fall. For many kids, the pool is summer’s highlight—a natural gathering place and a chance to exercise when it’s too hot to do much of anything else. And indeed, certain pools and water parks in states such as Texas and Georgia have made plans to open this summer, though some will operate at reduced capacity.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered some suggestions for how pools can stay open without turning into viral hot spots. But not only do the guidelines seem far-fetched; if followed, they are likely to make for a somewhat strange pool season. For example, the agency said, pool operators could space lounge chairs six feet apart and disinfect them regularly. They could encourage people to wear masks when they’re outside the water—tan lines be damned. And strangest of all, the CDC recommends somehow keeping people six feet away from one another while they’re in the water.

These are just suggestions; the actual restrictions for swimmers will be up to local public-health authorities and the pool managers themselves. Experts I spoke with offered some more ideas, such as allowing people living at odd- and even-numbered addresses to come to the pool on different days, to facilitate social distancing. Pools could set up a reservation system for lap lanes and keep people from loitering around the pool. Some cities are opening just their largest pools—perhaps because their bigger size would better allow people to spread out.

But these restrictions come with their own drawbacks. People might get frustrated that their designated pool “day” falls on a rainy Sunday rather than a sunny Saturday. And social distancing at pools can be hard to enforce. It’s not really possible to get small kids—some of the most enthusiastic pool-goers—to keep their distance from one another. At the pool, even normal adult behavior tends to devolve into joyous anarchy: If you spot your friend as you’re dipping in and out of lap lanes, are you really going to not stop and say hi? Plus, there’s the fact that lifeguards can’t keep a six-foot distance from someone they’re trying to rescue.

It’s enough to make some experts think we should just avoid pools entirely this summer. “I don’t know that there’s a safe way for them to reopen, at least not in the way we’ve classically used pools,” says Aubree Gordon, an epidemiology professor at the University of Michigan. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for people to be lounging around outside of pools right now.”

She thinks that this summer we should make the choice to forgo pools—amazing, life-restoring, but, admittedly, not life-or-death pools—to reduce the likelihood of another outbreak. “We may have to keep some things that are nice to have closed or reduced so that we can have the things that are essential open and functioning,” she says.

Perhaps realizing these risks, some cities have decided to keep pools closed throughout the summer. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said the city’s pools will remain closed all summer, and he’s even warned New Yorkers that he will go a step further and have swimmers plucked out of the water at the city’s beaches. Several other cities, including Roeland Park, Kansas; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Portland, Oregon; and Evansville, Indiana, have also announced that they will keep their pools closed all summer.

I thought about all these closures and restrictions as I talked to Tsui. Like her, I love swimming. Though doing laps is great, I like all the other parts about it, too. I get depressed when I think about a summer without reading my book in the sunlight, my legs half-submerged, the pool water slicing through the humidity. Then I think about the chlorinated air—perhaps carrying a viral droplet—sweeping into my lungs.

Tsui asked me if I’d be willing to adjust the pool experience for a pandemic-friendly version, in which I perhaps come at an appointed time, swim a few laps, then don my mask and head home right away. In essence, all of the social aspects of swimming would go away, leaving a tedious husk of exercise and caution. Is it even fun to be in a pool if you have to be sure to stay six feet away from everyone?

I’ll take what I can get, I told her, but I won’t be happy about it.