Is it safe to swim during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are pools, lakes and beaches safe this summer?

What about drinking water and water sports? You've got questions about COVID-19 and the summer of 2020. We've got answers.
May 21, 2020
 A man in mask and sunglasses at a swimming pool in this article about if it is safe to swim during covid
Is it safe to swim during the COVID-19 pandemic at pools, lakes and beaches? Photo: Getty Images.

Summer is usually synonymous with swimming.

But, 2020 is no normal year. In the midst of the pandemic, will it be safe to swim at your favorite, pool, lake or beach? Is water safe during the COVID-19 crisis?

We consulted with experts to give you answers.

Is it safe to swim during COVID?

The first thing to know is that there is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads through water in pools, hot tubs, spas or water play areas, according to experts at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That’s because disinfectants used to clean water – including chlorine and bromine – should kill the virus that causes COVID-19.

The potential for COVID-19 to spread at pools, lakes and beaches relates to crowds attracted to these places. The virus can spread from person to person on the deck of the pool or as children and adults play and relax at beaches and lakes.

“It’s really the close contact with people – whether in the water or on land – that’s the concern,” said Dr. Daniel Pastula, a UCHealth neuro-infectious disease expert.

“Without proper social distancing, a water park or a pool might be a high-risk scenario. It’s not the risk of the water itself. It’s the density of people. And, it’s hard to wear a cloth mask when it’s soaked,” said Pastula, who is also an associate professor of neurology, infectious diseases and epidemiology for the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Colorado School of Public Health.

The second thing to know is that local public health departments will be working with recreation managers to make decisions about whether to open pools, lakes and beaches for the public. As you make your plans this summer, be sure to follow the guidance of your local public health authorities as they work to keep you safe during very challenging times.

Pastula and his colleague, Dr. Lakshmi Chauhan, who specializes in infectious diseases,  and is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, shared their knowledge about infectious diseases and water so you can stay safe from COVID-19 this summer.

Is drinking water safe?

Yes. The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, has not been detected in drinking water, according to the CDC.

“Conventional water treatment methods that use filtration and disinfection, such as those in most municipal drinking water systems, should remove or inactivate the virus that causes COVID-19,” CDC experts say.

“As far as we know, drinking water is very, very safe,” Pastula said.

Does the virus that causes COVID-19 spread through water in swimming pools?

No. As far as experts know, there has been no transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through water in pools or hot tubs as long as they are properly maintained and disinfected.

Unlike bacteria, which can survive in water that is not properly cleaned, viruses don’t survive well on their own in water, in the air or on surfaces.

“Viruses are just a strand of RNA or DNA. They need a host to survive,” Chauhan said.

Some illnesses like cholera and typhoid can be transmitted through water, but these are bacterial infections. COVID-19 is a viral infection transmitted primarily through droplets when people cough or sneeze.

“This is a respiratory virus,” Chauhan said. “It’s unusual for respiratory viruses to be transmitted in water.”

Does the virus spread in saltwater pools?

No. If these pools are working properly, they use filtration systems that convert salt into chlorine which dissolves in water to keep the pool safe.

Do you have to practice social distancing in water to stay safe?

Yes. “If you’re swimming and a person near you coughs, you could inhale their droplets. That could spread the virus,” Pastula said.

Added Chauhan: “The safety measures at a pool are the same physical distancing measures we’ve been talking about for everywhere else. The major mode of transmission is person to person.

“If you’re in a recreational environment, maintaining distancing may become harder So, avoiding crowded pools and beaches would be a good idea until the pandemic subsides,” Chauhan said.

Are lakes and ocean water safe from the virus that causes COVID-19?

Yes, the water in lakes and the ocean should be safe since the virus that causes COVID-19 is not transmitted in water. The same concerns about social distancing and hand hygiene apply at lakes and beaches, just like they do at pools or other places where people gather.

Little girl wears a mask and she cups her dad's face at the beach in this article about if it is safe to swim during covid..
Swimming in the ocean should be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. But crowds on the beach could be a problem. Photo: Getty Images.

Does the virus that causes COVID-19 spread through human waste?

Researchers have found evidence of the virus in untreated sewage. In fact, scientists who are testing sewage are finding that the virus shows up in sewage before increased rates of infection emerge from testing or hospital admissions. Researchers believe that’s because the virus shows up in fecal matter before people seek medical treatment for COVID-19. Still, there is no evidence that people are becoming infected in the U.S. through raw sewage.

“Even though we think that urine and stools may carry some of the coronavirus, we don’t have enough data to say whether it can be infectious,” Chauhan said.

As always, people should wash their hands very thoroughly with soap and water after going to the bathroom and should wash their hands multiple times throughout the day.

And, advises Pastula: never swim in a bay or body of water close to a sewage discharge site.

“Swimming near untreated wastewater is never a good idea given the risk of multiple different pathogens,” Pastula said. “Treated wastewater should lower the risk of infections. And, there’s no evidence of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19 through treated wastewater.”

I have my own pool or hot tub. Is it safe?

Yes. As long as you are properly maintaining and disinfecting your pool or hot-tub, it should be safe.

But, says Pastula, 2020 might not be the year to host large pool parties.

“If you have your own pool and members of your household are playing in it and you are properly cleaning and treating it, then it’s probably low risk,” he said.

Will public pools be safe?

If public pools open at all during 2020, pool managers will have to limit crowds and visitors will have to practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet apart. Otherwise, public pools won’t be safe.

“A crowded public pool or crowded water park would be higher risk and may not be possible this summer,” Pastula said. “Always defer to local public health guidelines.”

Are water sports like paddle-boarding and sailing safe?

“If state and local health authorities allow it and you’re able to maintain social distance and practice all good COVID-19 prevention measures, I would think paddle boarding would be a low-risk situation,” Pastula said.

He likened paddle boarding to going on a walk in a remote area by yourself.

If you have your own board and a place to go where you do not need to be around crowds, then you should be fine.

If you need to rent a paddle board or sailboat, you would need to keep your distance from workers, wear a mask and be sure to sanitize your hands or any shared equipment that your hands touch, like paddles, oars or a boat.

The same guidance applies with recreation as it does in other scenarios, like grocery shopping. Think about objects your hands are touching.

“You need to clean frequently-touched surfaces. You want to wash your hands and avoid touching your face.

“Any frequently-touched objects that are shared could be a source of infection,” Pastula said.

“You have to break the cycle of transmission. The object would need to have the virus on it. You would need to touch that object with your hand, then touch your mouth, nose or eyes.”

Are beaches safe?

As long as state and local authorities have opened beaches for recreation, swimming in the ocean should be a low-risk activity. Of course, you need to be a strong swimmer to venture into the ocean and you should always be aware of dangerous currents, like riptides, that can pull swimmers away from shore where they can become exhausted and drown. In many coastal areas, health officials are allowing people to walk on beaches or swim or surf. But they are asking people not to congregate in groups on land.

“Gathering at crowded beaches is not a good scenario,” Pastula said. “When you’re close to someone who is mildly symptomatic or asymptomatic, you could inhale droplets and become infected.

“That’s why state and local authorities are recommending cloth masks in public spaces. Masks do not really protect you. They protect others from you,” Pastula said.

Am I less likely to get the virus outside than inside?

Yes. Health experts believe you are much more likely to get the virus if you’re spending time indoors. The longer you spend at an establishment inside – like a restaurant, grocery store or nail or hair salon – the greater your chances of getting infected. So, swimming at an indoor facility might not be wise now.

“If you’re at a crowded indoor pool and if someone is infected with SARS-CoV-2, there could be a significant risk of transmission, not from the water, but from other nearby people,” Pastula said.

Outdoor pools should be safer than indoor facilities.

“If you are able stay more than 6 feet away from others and practice social distancing, we think the risk of transmission outdoors is low. The virus gets dispersed more easily outdoors,” Pastula said.

What’s the best way to keep from getting infected?

Staying safe from COVID-19 is the same whether you’re at a pool, a park or a grocery store. Focus on how you could get infected: by touching something or by having someone sneeze or cough on you.

“The virus is mainly spread through droplets. That means someone either has to cough or sneeze on you. Or you have to touch a surface that has live virus on it and introduce it to your face with your hands,” Chauhan said.

“Keep your hands washed at all times” Chauhan said.

Were pools and beaches closed in the past during other disease outbreaks?

Yes. Anyone who was alive in the 1940s and 1950s will remember the closure of pools and beaches at both lakes and the ocean during summers when polio outbreaks were common.

Pastula said that public health experts back then didn’t understand exactly how polio spread during the outbreaks. But more people got sick during the summer. Polio is caused by an entirely different kind of virus than the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Polio is what’s known as an enterovirus and this class of viruses often spreads in July, August and September. Because the polio virus struck more people in the summer months, health experts initially theorized that mosquitos might have been transmitting it. In fact, experts know today that polio was transmitted primarily through feces or droplets. But, without a deep understanding of how the virus spread in the 1940s and 1950s, leaders shut down places where people gathered in the summers and that included pools and beaches.

Polio outbreaks were very scary until a vaccine became widely available in 1955.

“Parents would be terrified of the oncoming summer. One in 200 people would get paralysis, not just kids but adults. It would strike everyone, rich and poor. It seemed to strike at random.

“Polio was the No. 2 thing that Americans most feared at the time, second only to nuclear bombs,” Pastula said.

Public health experts today know much more about how SARS-CoV-2 spreads. But there are many parallels to outbreaks and plagues of the past. With no cures for COVID-19 and the lack of a vaccine, communities must rely on old-fashioned methods to stay safe, including isolation, quarantines, and social distancing.

Those efforts made a dramatic difference in the spring with COVID-19.

“What we’re seeing (in COVID-19 cases leveling off) is absolutely the result of the stay-at-home orders. The initial stay-at-home orders prevented a crisis in hospitals and helped quash that first wave,” Pastula said.

“As we start lifting and relaxing some of the restrictions, there’s a potential for a second wave. It can either become uncontrollable or remain slow, low, and controlled. What happens depends on how well we all collectively follow the guidelines,” Pastula said.

To keep a major rise in cases at bay, the summer of 2020 by necessity will be very different from years past.

“Right now, there is continued community transmission in many places,” Pastula said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Coloradan. She attended Colorado College thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summers in college.

Katie is a dedicated storyteller who loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as an award-winning journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and at an online health policy news site before joining UCHealth in 2017.

Katie and her husband, Cyrus — a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer — have three adult children and love spending time in the Colorado mountains and traveling around the world.