How to swim safely amid the coronavirus pandemic as pools and ponds reopen

As gyms, pools, and public ponds reopen, swimming is finally an option once again.

For many, being able to take a dip in the water is a lifeline for mental and physical wellbeing, and going without a regular swim has been tough in lockdown.

But even as we let the relief of reopening wash over us, there’s still plenty of worry about how we can stay safe when we head to pools and open bodies of water.

The government may have given the go-ahead, but can we actually dive straight in without fear of catching coronavirus?

All public pools and ponds should have measures in place to make swimming as safe as possible, with government guidance asking establishments to limit the number of people in the water at any one time, ensuring enhanced cleaning procedures are followed, and tweaking queuing systems and changing room use to reduce contact.

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But what can we do on an individual level to stay safe and feel confident getting back in the water? We chatted with medical experts for their advice.

Government guidelines for gyms and pools:

Venues such as swimming pools, public ponds, and gyms have been asked to implement the following measures:

  • Limiting the number of people using the facility at any one time, for example by using a timed booking system;
  • Reducing class sizes and allowing sufficient time between each class to avoid groups waiting outside during changeover;
  • Ensuring an appropriate number of people are in a swimming pool at any one time;
  • Spacing out equipment or taking some out of service to maintain social distancing;
  • Enhanced cleaning and providing hand sanitizer throughout venues;
  • Considering how the way people walk through their venue could be adjusted to reduce contact, with queue management or one-way systems;
  • Ensuring adequate ventilation;
  • Encouraging the use of outdoor spaces for individual, team or group activities, making sure to comply with the latest restrictions on public gatherings;
  • Exercise or dance studios should have temporary floor markings where possible to help people stay distanced during classes;
  • Customers and staff should be encouraged to shower and change at home wherever possible, although changing rooms will be available.

Arrive already changed

Rather than faffing about in changing rooms, just stick your swimming costume on underneath your clothes before you leave the house.

Once you’re done, avoid spending ages in the changing room. You want to get out of there speedily to avoid mingling with others.

Minimise your risk getting to and from the pool

It doesn’t matter how careful you are once you’re in the pool if you’re exposing yourself to coronavirus on the way there and back.

Babylon’s GP Dr Keith Grimes tells ‘We don’t currently have any evidence that a well-managed pool presents a risk of transmission of Covid-19, so you should try and minimise your risk getting to and from the pool – spread out the visits to quieter times, consider changing at home, and make sure you follow all the measures put in place at the leisure centres.’

That also means wearing a mask if you need to get public transport to your local pool.

Maintain distance in the water

Your chosen pool or pond should have limited the number of people in the body of water, but make sure you and your fellow swimmers aren’t getting too close and cosy.

‘In Europe and in France the recommended capacity is no more than one person per square metre of water,’ says Dr Sadaf Hussain, GP and CEO of ZoomClinic. ‘However, if you can maintain a greater distance such as 2 metres that would reduce the risk of spread further.’

Are you safe from coronavirus in the water?

More research is needed into whether being in water protects you adequately from the spread of coronavirus, and it’s vital that even if the risk is lower, we don’t throw caution to the wind when we’re swimming.

While there’s no evidence to suggest that coronavirus can spread through water, many scientists believe the virus could be airborne, meaning that if you’re splashing about with other people the illness could be spread while your heads are above the surface.

Dr Sadaf Hussain believes that you’re at lower risk of spreading the virus when you’re in water, but insists that maintaining distance is still crucial.

‘We need more studies to determine the spread of COVID-19 in water. However, in indoor swimming pools, where there is good maintenance and disinfectants such as chlorine are added to the water, the risk of Covid-19 transmission will probably be lowered as it is likely the virus will be inactivated,’ he explains.

‘There are no studies on the survival of COVID-19 in seawater that I am aware of, however it is likely that the dilutional effect of the sea water and the saline levels in the sea water will quite possibly inactivate or reduce the effects of the virus.

‘However, in untreated water such as lakes and ponds where the salinity may be lower, the risk of Covid-19 spread may be higher.’

Jana Abelovska, medical advisor at Click Pharmacy, echoes this, telling us: ‘There’s no current evidence to prove that the virus can spread in water, however there may be the possibility of it spreading in a public swimming pool environment due to the amount of people in an enclosed space, humidity and damp conditions.

‘Swimmers and families will need to be incredibly vigilant if they plan on heading to a public pool as there will most likely be others in the pool and surrounding areas which means that social distancing may be difficult.’

Have a shower before and after

You’re supposed to do this regardless of the pandemic, but we know it’s easy to forget. Don’t forget now, when we’re trying to slow the spread of coronavirus and keep safe.

‘You can reduce the risk of Covid-19 spread by practices such as showering before and after swimming and washing your hands thoroughly,’ says Dr Sadaf.

Clean your swimming costume or trunks the moment you get home

As well as washing your body, you’ll need to make sure the clothes you wore outside, along with your swimwear, are thoroughly cleaned.

‘Once you come home ensure you wash all swimming suits with detergent and hot water,’ says Jana Abelovska, medical advisor at Click Pharmacy.

No splashing or shouting

‘I would avoid splashing too much around other people, avoid dipping your head under or swallowing too much pool water if you can,’ says Jana. ‘Also you must avoid shouting or screaming in the pool, and do not go near others who are doing this, especially children.

‘This is because virus particles will be able to travel from someone else’s mouth and potentially land on you or in your mouth, especially if you’re nearby.’

Bring hand sanitiser and wipes

While we’re sure you’re already washing your hands as much as possible, maintaining social distance, and wearing your face mask, make sure you don’t let your guard down just because you’re going to be in the water.

Bring hand sanitiser for the time you spend queuing up and sorting out your locker and so on, and wipe down any surfaces you touch with an antibacterial wipe.

Be careful with your stuff

As we mentioned, hanging out in communal areas such as changing rooms and by the lockers is to be avoided. Many pools will have closed down their changing rooms and lockers just to stop people doing this.

If you can leave your stuff in your car, that’s best. Ideally, you’ll not have any excess stuff with you, as you will have changed at home. If you do have bits with you, Jana recommends keeping everything in a ‘zipped-up bag, so they are not exposed to the air’.

If you bring a drink, make sure the lid and top area are clean and sanitised before you take a sip.

Once you get home, make sure everything you’ve taken to the pool and outside gets a proper wash.

Parvinder Sagoo, lead medical advisor at Simply Meds, says: ‘Bring a separate zip bag for your gym clothes, towel and equipment which will be exposed in the gym to other people and the equipment.

‘Do not leave any items out in the open where they are at risk of infection, so towel, clothes, shoes, swimming goggles and products, keep them in a zipped-up bag. Once you change out of your gym kit or swimming costume, put into a plastic bag and then again in a zipped-up bag so they are not out.

‘After your session make sure you change out of the clothes worn in the gym and put them in the zipped-up bag, I would then advise washing on a hot wash with good detergent to kill any potential harmful bacteria.’

Don’t wear a mask in the water

While you should wear your mask to and from the pool, wearing it in the water is pointless – and could be dangerous.

A sodden mask not only stops protecting you from coronavirus, but could also obstruct your breathing as you swim.

Take your own equipment

If you need floats, armbands, or anything else for yourself or your children, please don’t rely on shared items being available at the pool. Most places won’t be offering out shared items and if they are, you’re putting your trust in their sanitation procedures.

Your safest option is to bring along your own equipment that only you and your family use.

Don’t overtake

Getting up close and storming past someone in the pool is already a tad rude, but it should definitely be avoided amid coronavirus.

If you’re doing laps, you should be spaced out enough that you don’t need to overtake someone to make your way past.

Swim England recommends following one-way systems and sticking to lanes for specific speeds – if you change to a slower stroke as part of your session, move on over.

Don’t rush yourself

If the thought of heading to the pool terrifies you, don’t force yourself to head along just because swimming is an option again – and if you’re high risk, it’s still best to stay home.

And if you do head to your pool and don’t feel safe, whether that’s because safety precautions aren’t in place, it’s busier than you expected, or people aren’t maintaining social distance, don’t feel silly for turning back around.

Parvinder says: ‘When it comes to visiting sports centres, gyms and public swimming pools people will have to enter with extreme caution and only go back if they are comfortable and remain safe.

‘I would not advise anyone with underlying health issues or complications to visit the gyms or pools yet, or those who are a bit nervous.

‘The environment of a pool and gym are made so that people are able to perspire and expel bodily fluids freely, this could potentially mean that Covid-19 will be much easier to catch and transmit.’

Don’t pee, blow your nose, sneeze, or cough in the water

It’s not only gross, but dangerous. Plus just the sight of you doing something like this could make another swimmer feel incredibly panicked, ruining their time in the water.

Please don’t do it.

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