In a normal summer, having friends over for a swim is one of the easy joys for people fortunate enough to have a backyard pool. Now, it can feel fraught, even as water lovers everywhere are desperate for aquatic relief with the closing of many public pools. But experts say it is possible to share your oasis safely.
The consensus among infectious-disease experts is that pool water is not inherently risky, especially when the water is treated properly with chlorine or bromine and maintenance is kept up. Health authorities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemiologists all agree that it’s the humans around the pool who pose the biggest threat.
“If the families sharing an outdoor pool aren’t congregating together for long periods of time in and around the pool, it’s probably quite safe,” said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “Adults swimming laps while distanced from each other is probably quite safe.”
In general, a backyard pool is probably safer than a public beach, pool or water park, all places where it is harder to control for density and exposure. But Rasmussen cautions that there are still risks, depending on what people are doing outside their households.
In late March, Peter Wohlfeiler and Mary Canning began to share their 16-yard backyard lap pool in Piedmont, Calif., with a small group of friends. Most are older than 50 and into their 70s, with one 14-year-old club swimmer in the mix.
“We set up a program with scheduling — people text, because we don’t want more than two swimmers in the pool at once,” Wohlfeiler said.
If one group arrives before another has left, they stay 6 feet apart, with masks worn.
Canning says that it has been a joy to share the pool with those who are seeking freedom and relief in the water, including friends who are immune-compromised.
“For a lot of people, swimming has been an enormous part of managing everything right now,” she said.
With children, of course, it gets trickier, depending on the nature of play and how much contact they have with one another.
Clear communication is key, but if you share your pool right, you can lend some much-needed joy and solace to your immediate community.
“It was life-changing on a hot day,” said Christina Amini, whose family of two adults and two children was recently invited to share a friend’s backyard pool. “Just the relief of water and being refreshed after heat, home school and intense weeks — it was amazing.”
Ensure that pool maintenance is up to date and chemical levels in the pool are correct.
Wohlfeiler has scheduled professional maintenance once a week, but he also tests the chlorine levels himself every few days, adding chlorine as needed. (USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, recommends increasing the water sanitation level to a higher concentration of chlorine, within the normal range — closer to 2.0 parts per million — because of COVID-19.)
Have your guests bring their own towels and change into swimsuits at home before coming over. This way, you minimize contact and your guests do not need to come into the house. Leave a side gate open for them to reach your backyard, so they don’t have to touch anything en route.
Designate a separate zone for your guests to sit and stow their items during their visit. Children should have their own picnic blankets or towels to return to when not in the water. Grown-ups, when not distantly socializing in the pool, should have dedicated chairs. No switching.
Do not share equipment — that includes pool floats, kickboards, balls and toys. Have your guests bring their own food and drink, and pack out their containers and disposables when they are finished.
Alternate pool time between households. That’s safest according to Rasmussen. But if the pool is big enough to maintain at least 6 feet of distance while swimming, you can designate half the pool for the “home team” and the other half for the “visiting team.” Make signs and keep it fun, but keep teams separate. Swimmers should stick to their own team’s side, using that side exclusively to enter, exit and pause between laps.
Keep the visiting period limited to the swimming itself. And stick to an hour or so, not least because this minimizes the need for bathroom breaks. But if you do want to socialize, normal distancing rules apply. Wear masks when you’re not in the water.
After your guests leave, disinfect surfaces like chairs or tables. And recheck the chemical levels in your pool to confirm that they are still within the correct range. Then pat yourself on the back for being a good neighbor.