How Cities Can Support a Safer Return to Vital Instructional Aquatics

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The COVID-19 pandemic has created unimaginable challenges for public health professionals and policymakers in states and municipalities across the country. Their continued efforts and sacrifices are commendable as they navigate difficult decisions regarding if and when various businesses can reopen to the public. The aquatics community is respectfully imploring decision makers to prioritize opening publicly-owned (city-owned) and privately-owned aquatic facilities for purpose-driven aquatics and are ready to offer their guidance in doing so with the most stringent of safety protocols in place.

The Aquatics Coalition, an alliance of nearly 30 water safety, competitive and fitness water sports organizations, is dedicated to ensuring a safer re-entry to the pool for instructional aquatics.  These activities include learn-to-swim programs, competitive aquatics, rehabilitation and fitness, and lifeguard training. We are not advocating for facilities opening for unrestricted recreational use.

The CDC has reported that COVID-19 is not transmitted through chlorinated water, and unlike many sports, swimming, diving, and aquatics fitness and therapy do not require direct contact. Furthermore, in its latest COVID-19 guidelines, the NCAA Sport Science Institute classifies swimming as low-contact risk. Potential hazards can be mitigated by following strict safety guidelines and policies.

The physical, mental, and economic benefits provided by purposeful aquatics to communities cannot be understated. First, drowning rates spike in the summertime. The CDC reports that drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of four and the second leading cause of accidental death for children under the age of fourteen. The continued shutdown of aquatic facilities can contribute to this tragic statistic to spike even higher due to a lack of lifeguards. Currently, there are limited lifeguard training opportunities as this is not a skill that can be acquired solely through virtual learning. Additionally, closed aquatics facilities mean children will likely be spending more time swimming in water where lifeguards may not be present, and has abruptly halted learn-to-swim programs for children who most need those lessons. African-American children drown at a rate more than five times that of white children. Swim lessons are a critical resource for keeping children physically active and staying cool in the summer, but doing so safely.

Second, for many people, instructional aquatics — lap swimming, competitive aquatics, water exercise, and injury rehabilitation – are vital components of mental and physical health. There are many people for whom aquatics is their only form of exercise.  Additionally, regular exercise can also reduce risk factors for severe COVID-19. Similar to walking, running, and cycling, aquatic sports under instruction can easily comply with standards for social distancing and safety, minimizing the risk of the virus spreading. On the national and local levels, the Aquatics Coalition has created safety plans that allow aquatic facilities to promote physical and mental health opportunities that are compliant with public health directives.

Lastly, the COVID-19 crisis has dealt a devastating blow to local and national aquatics businesses. Staff, including swim lesson providers and coaches, who are employed at both privately-owned and city-own aquatic facilities, have been furloughed or laid off while facility and organizational revenue has plummeted. These small businesses are at risk of unrecoverable economic damage if they remain shuttered.

Instructional aquatics can resume in a way that does not add unnecessary risk to the community. Guidelines can be administered from the time aquatic staff and participants enter the parking lot to when they exit the facility – with maximized social distancing and minimized interpersonal contact, sanitization protocols, water and air quality treatment measures, and staff member training on COVID-19 best practices.

City officials across the country are making ongoing, difficult decisions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they should open, and keep open, indoor and outdoor aquatic facilities so that Americans are able to reap the benefits of purpose-driven swimming. As the first step to opening aquatic facilities, city officials should check their county orders to confirm whether or not pools are allowed to open. If county orders do not permit pools to open, city officials should lobby the county on the critical need for instructional aquatics, and coordinate with the public health department on devising safety protocols for aquatics participants and staff.

If county orders have authorized pools to open, city officials should work with the public health department and school superintendents to determine their required safety guidelines and then work with aquatic facilities to implement them. In either case, city officials can refer to the guidelines that the Aquatics Coalition developed in consultation with public health professionals.

Many states have already allowed a measured return to purpose-driven, structured aquatics. It is important that other states and local communities follow suit by putting swimming pools in the most imminent phase of their reopening plans. It is equally important that these measures extend through the fall and winter as outdoor pools close. Time is of the essence to ensure safety in and around the water, and give a boost to our communities’ mental, physical, and economic health.

The Aquatics Coalition stands ready to assist any municipality in their efforts to open, and keep open, pools. More detailed plans for a safer return to the water can be found at www.aquatics-coalition.org.

 

About the Authors

The Aquatics Coalition and its members are poised to work collaboratively with state and local officials to find solutions to restart purpose-driven swimming.