The pool is probably safe. It's the people you need to worry about.

As the summer swimming season arrives, aquatics managers are coming up with creative ways to deal with the challenges of the coronavirus crisis.

Photograph by Sean M. Haffey, Getty Images
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U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Andrew is coached by his father as he trains in a residential pool in San Diego, California. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the routines of top athletes as well as recreational swimmers.

Photograph by Sean M. Haffey, Getty Images

If you are a swimmer, a regular at water exercise class, or a bad-back person who depends on pool water as the only surroundings in which the pain reliably lets go, then the pandemic has probably taken that away from you too. Unless you have a pool in your backyard—in which case we less fortunate swimmers wish you well while hating you a little—you lost your place of respite in March: no public pools, no clubs, no YMCAs. Maybe you’re able to stride around your neighborhood or ride a bike: Grateful, yes, but it’s not the same.

Your shoulders are sad. Your arms want to pull through water, because this feeling is like nothing else, and for many of us somewhat addictive. Memorial Day weekend is upon us. What gives? How much longer? And could some submerged coronavirus find its way through the water to infect you?

Picture Dan Berzansky, standing in the heat outside the gates of a Southern California pool. He’s in shorts and a polo shirt, his standard outdoor work ensemble. Staring at him, waiting for their warning script, are four sets of towel-holding parents and their impatient children, everybody wearing swimsuits under their clothes to bypass the locker room. Berzansky owns a company that provides swim lessons and lifeguards to pools run by neighborhoods and homeowner associations; a dozen began tentative re-openings this month, and he’s the top safety guy. The challenges he’s been negotiating are on the immediate agenda of every aquatics manager, swim coach, and swimming safety expert in the world.

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A poster promotes swimming as healthy exercise, if done in clean pools.

Berzansky holds up a printed sheet of paper. “COVID-19 POOL RULES,” he reads.

Doesn’t matter if you’ve heard this already, Berzansky explains; anybody going into the pool has to hear it again first. “Please keep in mind that you have booked a 45- minute pool-use period,” he reads. “If you would like to use the locker rooms, which we do not recommend, please allow time out of your allotted 45-minute period.”

It’s a six-point script, number six being the big-picture warning: “You enter knowing the risks associated with being in public during the COVID pandemic.” Social distancing rules still apply, the script says; each household group must keep to its own sectioned-off part of the pool, at least six feet from other groups, the barriers delineated by lane ropes. For lap swim the ropes are rearranged lengthwise, one person per lane, 45 minutes max. Nobody with COVID-19 exposure risks or symptoms, including a recent loss in the sense of smell or taste, is allowed in. The pool water is safe—we’ll get to that in a minute—but anything that might have been touched outside the water is cleaned, every hour, by lifeguards whose formal training did not include learning how to disinfect pool ladders and deck chairs.

Berzansky recounted all this a few days later in an appropriately distanced phone call, sounding both resigned and determined. “We have to get super creative,” he said. “We basically say the showers are closed, but the restrooms are open for emergency use. The truth is people only get 45 minutes, so they’re not going to waste their time in the toilet.”

Because there are no nationally applicable pandemic rules for swim areas in the United States—pools, lakeshores, and ocean beaches operate under many different levels of local and state authority—creativity abounds with the approach of summer, as do colliding declarations.

Florida famously kept its beaches open in March, took massive flak for the crowd photos, and then closed them; this week the state says beaches can open again, but some counties say they can’t. Texas says pools can open; in some cities, like Fort Worth, authorities say not yet.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has banned beach swimming at least through Memorial Day; no lifeguards will be on duty, his announcement said. (What if swimmers jump in anyway? “People are not allowed to swim in non-lifeguarded areas,” a city parks department spokesperson replied by email. “We will have NYPD and parks patrol out on beaches to ensure that this is the case.”)

In South Carolina, where statewide guidelines have freed pools to reopen—with mandatory social distancing, frequent disinfecting, and so on—improvisations are rolling out town by town. “6 a.m., masters swim for an hour, 7 to 7:30 we clean,” says Brenda Rindge, the North Charleston aquatics coordinator, gamely rattling off the schedule she helped work up for the 50-meter pool’s reopening. “7:30 to 10, youth swim team. From 10 to 10:30, we clean.”

You get the idea. This goes on all day, like some 19th century estate with the housekeeping staff bustling in after every room occupation, but it lets people swim.

In Alaska, where a state order closed public pools in March, a team coach named Cliff Murray received city permission to restart practices in one Anchorage pool—because he and some volunteers came up with homemade plexiglass divider shields to hang between the lanes. “I was in a Lowe’s hardware store, all masked up, and the clerk was behind plexiglass and wasn’t masked,” Murray said a day after the inaugural shield-divided swim practice. “It just dawned on me that maybe this was something I could incorporate.”

How’s that worked? Reasonably well, Murray said; only the city’s Northern Lights Swim Team is using the pool so far, not the general public, but swimmers have been elated—both to see each other and to get back in the water. “Even if you’re talking through a plexiglass shield, it’s far better than doing it on FaceTime or Zoom,” he said. “I saw so many big giant smiles yesterday.”

It’s not the water people worry about. To the extent that researchers understand SARS-CoV-2—not completely, that is, as it’s a new variant—chlorine and other disinfectants, at standard pool concentrations, do an excellent job of killing this coronavirus, like its better-studied predecessors, including, notably, the polio virus.

In lakes and oceans, the dilution factor appears to make transmissibility equally unlikely. University of North Carolina epidemiologist David Weber, who has researched animal coronaviruses’ survival in sewage and treated wastewater, said he knows of no work specifically examining what happens to this kind of pathogen in salty water—but that swimming offshore should not in itself pose an infection danger. “I’m worried about sitting on the shore with other people who are sitting on the shore, drinking their Mai Tais and not wearing their masks,” Weber says. “That’s a far, far greater risk.”

Human proximity, in other words. For some adult swimmers the ironies are almost unbearable; part of what we depend upon is the meditative isolation of a mile in the water, the rest of the world briefly unreachable. But there are so many of us to manage on our way in, touching things and exhaling on each other and leaving our potentially infectious aerosols and droplets behind, that people like that California water safety businessman Dan Berzansky still have many rough decisions to make.

What about ordinary children’s horsing around—Marco Polo, that beloved kids-in-the-water summer standard, with the eyes closed, the yelling, the grabbing? How will student lifeguards be trained to perform their most important work when they can’t come close for exercises like practice rescues and CPR? What about swim classes, which tend to cluster kids at the pool wall, with instructors’ arms buoying the smallest and most frightened?

“We’re flipping to one instructor, one child,” Berzansky said. “And we’ll be teaching in masks.” He’s buying mannequins for the lifeguard classes. Not as satisfactory, he says. “But it’s the best we can do.”

Berzansky also works with a national nonprofit called Stop Drowning Now, and says he’s appalled at the prospect of losing months of swimming instruction—including elementary school classroom programs in which kids learn basics about staying safe around water. “We were teaching tens of thousands of kids a year, and now we don’t have access to any of them,” he says. “We’re desperate to get more kids educated.”

As for the racers, who ought to be heading into tournament season now—zilch. Even the Chincoteague ponies won’t get their big swim event; for the first time since World War II, organizers said, the annual pony swim across Virginia’s Assateague Channel has been called off. USA Swimming, the organization whose athletes include hundreds of thousands of young local-league children as well as national swimmers, cancelled the U.S. Olympic Trials meet in March, just after the Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed. USA Swimming managing director Joel Shinofeld says the curtailing of pro basketball persuaded him and his colleagues that the out-of-water risks were too high. “When we saw the NBA make their move, that was a signal to all of us,” he says.

Swim leagues all over the country have cancelled their competition seasons too; some of the swimmers Brenda Rindge supervises in North Charleston are part of a celebratory 22-team league that’s been a regional summer highlight for half a century. Not this year. Just too many kids, and too many spectators, to wrangle into contained spaces, even if they are outdoors.

“We know it’s going to be hard,” Shinofeld says. Earlier this month USA Swimming sent out a detailed list of suggestions for teams that do plan at least to resume practice sessions as pools reopen; Shinofeld led the writing of the guidelines, which lay out don’t-do-this rules much like Berzansky’s warning script. Shower at home. Don’t use locker rooms. Don’t congregate. Don’t shake hands or high-five.

There are flow charts in the plan as well, showing coaches how to spread swimmers out—one at this end, one at that end, keep them away from each other at the wall—and the next question seems plain: For the regular kids, the swimmers driven not by medal hunger but by the big exuberance of swimming together, does a season like this have the prospect of being any fun?

“It’s a really reasonable question,” Shinofeld says.

At first he and others at USA Swimming imagined older swimmers would show the younger ones how to make socially distanced practices work, he says; he was wrong about that. “The older kids have a harder time, because they hug each other,” he says. But there are Zoom ice cream socials, and Zoom group dry-land workouts—and, as the Anchorage coaches learned, the small exuberance of glimpsing a friendly face in the next lane. “Right now, I think, like with everything else, fun comes in different stages,” Shinofeld says. “And it comes in many forms.”