Rantz: Seattle’s Polar Bear Swim ironically forces masks, COVID boosters on swimmers
The organizers behind the Alki Beach Polar Bear Swim have changed their participation requirements due to the rapid spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19. None of it makes particular sense.
Swimmers dunk themselves into the Puget Sound’s chilly water each Jan. 1 in this annual tradition. The water is expected to be around 47 degrees. But this time, organizer and community activist Mark Ufkes is reportedly requiring masks at the event.
But that’s not all. Adult participants must be fully vaccinated, booster-ed, and “be in good health.”
The new rules are equal parts impractical, unnecessary, and even potentially dangerous.
New rule can be dangerous
The new rules are meant to convey the message that being outdoors is risky, but if you do as you’re told, you’ll be able to safely participate in the Alki Beach Polar Bear Swim. But you’re already safe to participate and the new rules will do little, if anything, to offer up protection against COVID-19.
In fact, one of the rules is flat out dangerous.
Citing “Washington State regulations,” all participants must remain socially distanced by at least 6 feet and they “must wear a mask.” It’s unclear if they’re expected to wear a mask in the water. Nevertheless, state regulations do not require you to wear a mask while in the water, or even outside in this circumstance.
It should go without saying that wearing a mask in the water is dangerous. You could suffocate in a wet mask. The CDC actually tells aquatic businesses to “discourage” mask use in the water and recommends replacing ones that get wet. And state regulations do not require mask wearing at outdoor events (assuming this attracts less than 500 people) where physical distancing is required.
Assuming participants can take off a mask while in the water, if organizers believe it’s so incredibly dangerous to be out in large groups maskless, why would they be OK taking it off at the exact moment when people are most likely to gasp from the cold water, thereby expelling COVID-infected droplets? It doesn’t make sense.
Requiring COVID vaccine boosters
The new rules require participants “be in good health.” This is unenforceable, of course.
What does this even mean? Is someone who suffers from high cholesterol barred from attending? Choosing to jump into frigid temperatures days after a snow storm may qualify as mentally unhealthy. Should this event be cancelled?
Moreover, the rules require all adults be vaccinated against COVID-19 and have received a booster shot. But the rule was announced on Sunday, Dec. 26. There’s no time for people to fully vaccinated and booster-ed by Jan. 1 if they’re not already.
It likely wouldn’t make a difference, anyway.
Omicron is mild and evades vaccines
The omicron variant is fast-spreading, but all studies so far suggest that it results in mild, cold-like symptoms (if you have any at all). We have not seen more hospitalizations or death as a result of the omicron variant.
More relevant is that it apparently evades the vaccine, including those who have received a booster. In fact, even with three full COVID vaccine doses, you are not protected from catching and spreading omicron. It’s why we’re seeing such a high “breakthrough” case rate.
“We must be aware that even triple-vaccinated are likely to transmit the disease,” Ugur Sahin, the CEO of vaccine developer BioNTech, told French daily Le Monde.
Still, outdoor transmission is believed to remain low. Pre-omicron, it was virtually impossible to transmit COVID outdoors. That appears to still be the case with omicron.
“There’s nothing about this variant that would suggest it would spread more easily outdoors or with more difficulty indoors,” said UC Berkeley infectious disease expert John Swartzberg. “(Omicron) is going to behave like every other variant in terms of how it spreads outdoors versus indoors.”
Ironic new rules
It’s somewhat ironic for these new rules to be implemented by a polar plunge group. The very idea of a polar plunge on New Year’s day is to start the year anew.
“For over 15 years, the Alki Beach Polar Bear Swim has been about ‘washing away the complexities of the previous year and bathing in the unlimited possibilities that the New Year provides,'” the organizers say.
So then why are they asking participants to start the new year with more complexities than the previous year?
Omicron should provide an opportunity for us to rethink COVID. Viruses never go away. COVID will almost certainly always be with us. We have to live with it, not constantly fight against it. In that context, omicron is objectively good news. We have a significantly less severe variant that barely gives most people a cold.
Those who are especially vulnerable, like the elderly or the immuno-compromised, should take special precautions. And everyone else should do what they do to avoid the cold or flu. That includes getting a vaccine, which could offer a “super-immunity” to COVID.
But we must stop pretending that a virus with less than a 1% death rate is as dangerous as one with a 1% survival rate. Omicron gives us that chance, as I write about in my Newsweek column. You’d think an event like this plunge would help reset the way we think about COVID going into the new year.
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