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.”
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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.
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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.