Pools In Texas Are Allowed To Reopen. Is It Safe To Go Back In The Water? Well ... Maybe?

May 6, 2020

Pools are among the facilities allowed to reopen Friday under Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order loosening restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

For its part, the City of Austin is still considering when it will reopen city pools.

“The Austin Parks and Recreation Department's pools will reopen when they can do so in a manner that does not jeopardize the health and safety of its employees and the community it serves,” the department said in a written statement. “With the help of the City of Austin and Austin Public Health and its partner agencies, PARD will continue to monitor public health recommendations as they pertain to reopening City facilities and develop its reopening plan.”

But there are plenty of other pools and swimming holes out there. Matthew Johnson wrote in to ask whether the water is safe to swim in — that is, whether you can get coronavirus from a pool — and whether there’s a difference between freshwater swimming spots, like Barton Springs and Deep Eddy, and chlorinated pools.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there’s no evidence the coronavirus can be spread through chlorinated pools. The chemicals used to disinfect the water “should inactivate” the virus, according to the CDC.

A technician checks chlorine levels in Walnut Creek Pool in 2017. Chemicals like chlorine could "inactivate" the coronavirus.
Credit Martin do Nascimento / KUT

“Chlorine, in general, is just not good for proteins that are at the surface of all viruses and allow them to attach to a host,” says Jackie Dudley, a professor of molecular biosciences at UT Austin. But, she adds, anytime someone is swimming in a pool with others, there is “some likelihood that they can get a viral infection.”

Dudley says there are viruses that can be transmitted through pool water — common cold viruses and adenoviruses, which can cause respiratory and digestive problems and eye infections. She warns that if you’ve picked up coronavirus somewhere else — and maybe don’t know it — and then catch one of these second viruses, it can cause major complications.

“Once you have one virus, you’re more likely to get another,” she says, because your immune system is compromised.

There has been some research on how long coronaviruses can survive in freshwater. For instance, a 2008 study of the SARS virus found it can survive up to 10 days in tap water at 23 degrees Celsius (just a tad warmer than Barton Springs Pool). But that also depended on other environmental factors, like organic material in the water and the presence of bacteria.

But actually picking up the virus through the water is unlikely, because the virus is probably diluted (unless you happen to catch a big ol’ hunk of someone’s spit floating on top of the water).

The bigger concern, Dudley says, is the lack of social distancing and precautions in a pool.

“Getting in the water, if you’re going to really swim, then you’re not likely to be wearing a mask,” she says. Then there's also the locker rooms, railings and other surfaces you will likely encounter on a trip to a public pool.

Bottom line if you simply must go swimming: “You need to maintain social distancing and go swimming in a chlorinated pool,” Dudley advises.

Got a tip? Email Matt Largey at mlargey@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mattlargey.

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