The COVID crisis has decimated water exercise. Can we rethink pool closures?
A significant number of my older patients relied on pools for their fitness. During a pandemic, you can stay active or fit only if you have good legs and joints. Walkers, runners, and cyclists have no problem; they play outside in the Spring weather.
People with bone/joint problems, fitness swimmers, and young children who normally take swim lessons this time of year are out of luck.
Consider the place I swim—the Mary T Meagher Natatorium, named after Mary T, a Louisville native, who won Olympic gold in 1984. The place is an ode to Sparta. The expansive no-frills public facility has tons of space to socially distance.
Before I tell you my proposal, let’s set out some givens on May 13.
- Three months into this crisis literally everyone knows the deal: the coronavirus is not going away. It will be as dangerous next year as this year;
- Older people are more vulnerable, and they know it;
- The virus travels via droplets so distance reduces your odds of infection;
- Other health conditions, such as mental stress, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, immobility and arthritis, do not become less problematic during a pandemic;
- People differ in their risk tolerance; some people see a 0.5% infection fatality rate as scary as heck, others see a 99.5% chance of survival.
- Hand washing reduces transmission. Masks might also reduce transmission.
- Finally, and this is key, the community-level risk for the virus differs greatly across the US. Policy in New York City or Chicago ought not be the same for rural Kansas or Texas.
I’ve said before that Americans are not stupid. We can, and we must, rely on people to make good decisions for themselves and their community.
Now to the proposal to open some public pools:
Start with a big sign in front that says we are open but these are not normal times.
You place a bunch of hand-sanitizer stations at the entrance.
Tell people to wear a mask and leave it at the poolside.
Then let them swim, do water aerobics at a distance, and allow teenagers to teach toddlers to swim.
After the workout, people put their mask on and leave. If they have to use a locker room or shower, that’s fine. I don’t know about women, but in the men’s locker room, social distancing comes naturally whilst being naked.
When schools open in the fall, and they must open, kids should play sports. This includes the swim teams. Teenagers have minimal risk from the virus. If they are mixing in schools, there is no reason not to let them mix on the field and in pools.
Caveat: I realize that summer scenes of hundreds of children mixed with adults in public pools is more problematic. My proposal applies to opening pools for the purpose of fitness.
An unintended positive externality: the act of allowing people to exercise in water would be a small step towards making peace with the virus. If people don’t want to risk catching the virus, they can stay away.
If we let people go to the grocery, walk in crowded parks or shop at gardening stores, we ought to let them enjoy the water.
Conflict of Interest: After fracturing my foot 2 years ago, I rediscovered the joys of swimming. Before the pandemic I often recommended swimming to my patients because there is something soothing about immersion in water.