Beach vs. Pool: Which Is Safer Right Now?

boy sitting next to public pool

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boy sitting next to public pool
Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images North America

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It's summer, it's hot (and only getting hotter), and you want to be in a body of water. We get it. But unless you have a pool in your backyard, the options are probably limited to the public pool or the beach. If you have access to both, you might be wondering: Where is it more prudent to go in a pandemic? We spoke to experts to find out if one is safer and, as it turns out, at least one expert did see a clear winner. In this world, though, even winners come with misgivings. 

Related: Reasons Not to Put in a Backyard Pool

public pool

What the CDC Says About Pools

Evidence suggests that "COVID-19 cannot be spread to humans through most recreational water," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that use of chemicals such as chlorine or bromine "should inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19."

busy public pool

But Not So Fast

That's great news if you thought a pool was just a giant bowl of COVID-19 soup, right? But experts say there are still serious concerns about public pools. "The more important risk associated with transmission in these settings is through direct contact with other individuals or by touching contaminated surfaces, such as bathrooms, locker rooms, or other shared items," says Kathleen Winter, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at the University of Kentucky's College of Public Health. In other words, it's not the pool water you should be concerned about — it's the people.

Jersey Shore Beach
christopher smith/istockphoto

Okay, So What About Beaches?

The CDC's advice on beaches is less focused on swimming and water transmission and more on practices such as "social distancing and everyday steps such as washing hands often and covering coughs and sneezes." So, again — and all the experts we spoke to agreed — it's not really about the water as much as it is those around you.

Related: 10 Ways to Keep Cool Without AC

baby using hand sanitizer

How to Stay Safe at Either Place

Navigating a public beach or pool safely really depends on how well you prepare and follow new public health rules. "Society as a whole — not just those of us in health care — are now more aware of how viruses and bacteria are transmitted, and this will have a profound impact on our social interactions going forward. People have become more conscious of hand-washing, of what they touch, of the need to maintain their distance when someone is sick," says Dr. Urvish Patel, a research associate in the department of neurology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and a medical adviser for eMediHealth. "I'd advise people to continue moving forward with these precautions."

women wearing masks walking dog on beach

Start With Keeping Your Distance

No matter which you plan to visit, continue social distancing. "People who are planning to use the beach or pool should not congregate while inside or outside the water," Winter says. "Individuals should maintain physical distances of 6 feet or more with others who are not already part of their households and should wear masks when they are unable to physically distance."

man wearing mask in pool

Speaking of Masks …

No, you should not wear a mask while swimming, the CDC says, noting that masks can "be difficult to breathe through when they're wet." You can, however, wear a mask when you're lounging or doing other activities outside the pool or on the beach.

busy beach in Maine
grandfather and boy washing hands at beach

Practice Good Hygiene

Just because you're in a body of water doesn't mean you don't need to wash your hands. "Patrons should wash their hands frequently," Winter says. Adds Patel: "Make it a habit not to touch your face or hair, just to be sure you don't contract any virus."

bag with gloves, masks, and hand sanitizer

Pack More Than the Usual Beach Bag

In addition to sunscreen, pool noodles, and a beach ball, pack your usual virus-fighting supplies: hand sanitizer; antibacterial wipes for wiping down surfaces that might have been used by others, including chairs; and, of course, masks.

Related: 15 Ways the Coronavirus Has Changed Americans' Daily Lives

picnic beach

Bring Your Own Food

"Do not visit any food services which aren't using social-distancing measures," Giuseppe says, adding that beach- and pool-goers should look to make sure food stands and such are "using gloves to hand out items, as well as properly adhering to social-distancing rules and aren't using physical cash as payment." To be on the even safer side: "I would advise you to bring your own food and drink to the beach rather than buy out."

Related: 30 Easy Picnic Staples to Pack for a Day in the Sun

kids splashing in pool

Keep Little Ones in Mind

On that note, every parent knows how hard it can be for kids under a certain age to understand social distancing. "Do not let your children play close to other children," Guiseppe says. If you don't think your children can avoid being drawn into the close-contact spheres of other kids, it's best to stay away from the public pool and beach this summer. 

beach toys

Discourage Sharing

You might have harped on your young children their entire lives to share, but this is one instance when you don't want them to. "Bring your own food, toys, and towels and do not share towels, drinking bottles, and other items that are in contact with the mouth," Guiseppe says. This extends to rides. "If gathering with people who are not part of your household," Winter says, "it's best to avoid carpooling to these locations."

family walking to beach

The Verdict

So which is safer — beach or pool? If you're able to choose between one or the other, Guiseppe says, choose the beach. Open bodies of water such as lakes, rivers, and the ocean "are definitely safe to swim in, much more safe than a swimming pool," she says. But again, it really comes down to personal responsibility more than any particular body of water. "I would say it probably isn't the best idea to visit public swimming pools only because it will be incredibly hard to social distance and keep things clean and sanitized in a damp and wet environment."

There is a third option, she adds: "You could always buy yourself a blow-up swimming pool for your backyard if you have the money and space."

Related: The Best Above-Ground Swimming Pools