Two people walking a dog on the beach

As the days get longer, sunnier, and warmer, it’s no surprise that people are longing to head to the beach. But ever since the start of the coronavirus crisis, beaches have been a point of controversy—remember the photos of Florida beaches packed with spring break revelers?

Many beaches in the U.S. have been closed for the past month or longer, but recently, some stretches of coastline—including parts of Florida, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and New Jersey—have reopened to the public. Not surprisingly, the outcome has been mixed.

For example, after certain Southern California beaches reopened the first weekend in May, an estimated 40,000 people crowded onto Newport Beach, causing the state’s governor to temporarily shut all beaches down again. Meanwhile, in New Jersey, officials reported that most beach- and parkgoers followed recommended social distancing guidelines, prompting a promise from that state’s governor to open more of them soon.

Going to the beach, or doing any public outdoor activity, these days can have benefits and risks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urges people to go outside to relieve stress and get fresh air and vitamin D. The key is to take the appropriate precautions—and to stay home if you are sick. If you’re hoping a visit to the beach is in your not-too-distant future, here’s what you need to know to do it safely.

Check the Rules Before You Go

Coronavirus-related requirements for beaches may differ among states—and even among neighboring towns. While some are open for all activities without restriction, others allow beach access only for running, walking, swimming, or fishing but not for lounging or picnicking.

More On Staying Safe During the Pandemic

Some areas are also implementing (or considering) measures to help reduce crowding—such as limiting parking lots to 50 percent capacity and selling fewer beach passes—and whether wearing a mask is required or recommended (and whether the rule is enforced) varies, too. Contact your local beach or public health department for current guidelines, and do your part by going back home if the parking lot and beach are too crowded to allow for social distancing.

The CDC also suggests limiting visits to beaches (and other outdoor recreation areas, such as parks) to those close to home. Traveling long distances means you’ll probably have to stop along the way and potentially contributes to the spread of the virus.

And if you do go to the beach—or anywhere else—don’t forget to take disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer with you to use while you’re out, and wash your hands as soon as you return home.

Swim Safely

The experts agree that while waterborne transmission of the novel coronavirus may be possible, it’s highly unlikely.

One potential route to infection is the possibility that saliva or mucus from an infected person might end up in the water where you’re swimming. “Infectious virus is present in both of those excretions,” says Charles Gerba, Ph.D., professor of virology and environmental science at University of Arizona in Tucson. “The virus could then get into the eyes, nose, or mouth of another swimmer.”

Although there is no data on how long the virus can live in water, Gerba’s research shows that coronaviruses that cause the common cold can survive in fresh water for up to three days. “We don’t have studies on seawater, but usually viruses survive for less time in salt water,” he says. However, even if the virus is present in water, experts agree that it would be very unlikely for it to be in a high enough concentration—after being dispersed in moving water—to get you sick.

The bigger threat, even in the water, is being close enough to an infected person to directly inhale virus particles they exhale, sneeze, or cough. “As a precaution, I would recommend practicing social distancing in the water just as you would on land,” says Mark D. Sobsey, Ph.D., a research professor at University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health in Chapel Hill, who studies viruses and bacteria in water. “That will allow any virus that might emanate from nearby swimmers, surfers, or paddlers to dilute, disperse, and die off,” he says.

Another concern people may have is catching the virus if any wastewater (used water from homes or businesses) has flowed into the ocean. “The risk of that causing infection is virtually none,” says Greg Kester, director of renewable resource programs at the California Association of Sanitation Agencies, a nonprofit organization. “The COVID-19 virus is completely inactivated during the wastewater treatment process and would not be infective once discharged to any surface or groundwater.”

Swimming in water that contains raw sewage or contaminated runoff water poses health risks, such as gastroenteritis, but the chance of contracting the coronavirus from it is slim as well. Although the virus has been found in fecal matter, “there is new evidence that the virus infectivity is destroyed by the intestinal tract,” Sobsey says. “Only the genetic material from the virus is found in feces, but not infectious virus.”

Authors of one preliminary study found that infectious virus is quickly inactivated by fluids in the colon. The researchers were unable to detect any infectious virus in the fecal samples they tested, leading them to conclude that fecal-oral transmission is unlikely. “This study is not yet peer-reviewed,” Sobsey says, “but it is sophisticated, thorough, and careful research.”

Still, as a precaution, it’s a good idea to consider wading or swimming without putting your head in the water. And avoid swallowing water when swimming.

Practice Social Distancing

The same precautions you take shopping at the grocery store, walking down the street, or going to a park apply to beach visits, too.

That means continuing good social distancing practices, including maintaining at least 6 feet between yourself and people not in your household.

“I think part of the problem with the beach is that the atmosphere makes people revert to a pre-COVID mindset,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “Unlike being somewhere like the grocery store, your sense of self-preservation and of being concerned about your neighbors diminishes just because of that relaxed beach atmosphere.”

When to Wear a Mask

If photos of some recent beachgoers are any indication, that casual atmosphere may also lead to forgoing masks. For instance, over the first weekend in May, officials in Miami Beach issued over 7,000 verbal warnings to non-mask-wearing visitors at a shoreline park (and eventually resorted to shutting the park down). The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings “in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” 

Check with your local health department to see if wearing a mask in parks and on beaches is mandatory in your area. If not, and if you can set up your beach towel at least 6 feet away from anyone not in your household, you may be able to safely remove your mask. “If you’re clearly separate from other people, I think you’re okay,” Schaffner says. The wind at the beach—blowing off a lake or ocean—may actually make it safer than some other spots, he says, because the wind helps diffuse virus particles in the air. “From what we’ve seen, most of this infection is transmitted indoors rather than outdoors,” he says.

But he recommends that you have a mask with you and put it on (carefully) if you get up to go for a walk or when you’re in the parking lot—anywhere you might encounter more people in close proximity.

Don’t Count on Having Access to Facilities

You should definitely “go” before you go, and don’t plan to stay at the ocean or lake all day.

Even in places where beaches have opened, their associated facilities—bathrooms and concession stands—have not. These facilities have many high-touch surfaces—doorknobs, toilet handles, faucets—that increase users’ odds of picking up virus particles on their fingers. According to a study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine, measurable amounts of the coronavirus can live on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to 72 hours.

Don’t Forget Beach Safety Basics

With so much of our energy and attention focused on coronavirus safety, common beach precautions might slip your mind. While most beaches open to swimming are likely to have lifeguards on duty, you still need to swim responsibly. And be careful not to wander too far from the lifeguard-protected zone in an attempt to keep your social distance from other swimmers.

Coronavirus worries are also no excuse to ignore sun protection while at the beach. “While protection against the coronavirus is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, it doesn’t mean you are no longer at risk for sun damage,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. He urges beachgoers (even if you’re allowed on the sand only for exercise, not sitting) to practice smart sun protection. This includes:

• Wearing protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.

• Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

• Applying a full ounce for your entire body. If you’re not in a bathing suit, use a quarter-sized dollop for your face, ears, and neck, and one for each leg and arm.

• Reapplying every 2 hours or after swimming or heavy sweating.

• Applying sunscreen to your entire face even if you’re wearing a mask. “A mask itself, because it is opaque, will give some level of physical protection against the sun,” Zeichner says. “But in all likelihood, if you are not around other people, the mask will come off, and you don’t want to leave the lower part of the face unprotected.”