Sunshine, warmer temperatures, and the gradual reopening of parks, trails, and restaurants with sidewalk seating are luring many of us outside after weeks of stay-at-home orders aimed at halting the spread of COVID-19. It could be easy enough to convince ourselves that flip-flop weather means we don’t need to be concerned with catching a respiratory illness, but when it comes to the coronavirus, that’s not the case.
Infectious disease experts don’t expect summer temperatures to make the pandemic go away. A study published May 8, 2020, in the Canadian Medical Association Journal analyzed the spread of the coronavirus around the globe and found that temperatures had very little impact on transmission. Researchers did find that restrictions on mass gatherings, school closures, and social distancing (staying six feet apart) were all strongly associated with slowing the spread.
“Going outside is great for your physical and mental health, but it’s important to keep in mind how the virus is transmitted,” says Humberto Choi, MD, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. “It’s mainly spread by close proximity with other people, primarily through respiratory droplets that people can exhale.” The possibility of asymptomatic people transmitting the disease remains a concern, adds Dr. Choi.
“People may be confused now that businesses and parks are opening; they may think everything is okay now. I think eventually it will be appropriate to open everything, but right now we need to start this process by taking precautions,” says Choi. “Although things are improving in many places, people are still getting very sick and dying from COVID-19.”
Even on a beautiful summer day, everyone should continue to take all the precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), according to Choi. “This includes social distancing, hand-washing, and using face coverings to help prevent the numbers of cases from increasing and people getting infected,” he says.
Enjoying the outdoors (safely) is possible, even in the age of COVID-19, as long as you take precautions and use common sense, says Choi. “I encourage everyone to spend more time outside as long as they plan in advance. Consider the place you want to go, when it will be the least crowded, and take the best measures you can to stay safe while outdoors, including wearing a face covering when needed and practicing social distancing,” he says.
If you’re unsure of what safety measures you should take to minimize your risk of catching the virus, keep reading to find out answers to your questions.
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Face Masks, Sunscreen, and Vitamin D
Do I Need to Wear a Mask or Practice Social Distancing While Outdoors?
Regulations around face coverings may vary from place to place, notes Choi. He offers the example of a park outing. “Before going outside to any location, check and see if the park is open, and if they have rules around face coverings,” he says.
Try to visit the park during off-peak hours so you’ll encounter fewer people, Choi adds. “You should practice social distancing even when you’re outside [and] that’s easier when it’s less crowded.”
Is Sunscreen on My Face Necessary if I’m Wearing a Face Covering?
You should still apply sunscreen to the area underneath a mask to avoid getting a sunburn, according to Joel Gelfand, MD, a dermatologist and professor of dermatology and epidemiology at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. “This is because masks may shift on the skin, and it can be difficult to make sure you have covered areas of your face that are not covered by the mask as it shifts during normal wear,” he says.
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Don’t We Need Vitamin D From the Sun to Help Our Immune System? Should I Skip Sunscreen to Make Sure I’m Getting Enough Vitamin D?
That would be a hard no. “Sun exposure causes sunburns, aging of the skin, and skin cancers that can be disfiguring and, in some cases such as melanoma, deadly,” says Dr. Gelfand. “Routine use of sunscreen does not meaningfully alter vitamin D production by the body and therefore people should liberally apply a high SPF (minimum of 15) sunscreen every two hours so decrease the harmful effects of ultraviolet light radiation.”
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Do I Need to Wear a Face Covering When I’m Riding a Bike?
Biking shouldn’t require wearing a face covering, especially if you are riding on the road or out on a trail in the woods, says Choi. “But if you are in a large group of people biking together where it could be hard to maintain social distancing, you may want to consider wear one,” he says. The same is true if you’re planning on hanging out when you’re finished your ride — you should have a face covering for those times, adds Choi.
Outdoor Exercise and Sports
Do I Need to Social Distance While Walking or Running?
“When it comes to exercise, the safest social distance might be a little bit more than six feet,” says Choi. Right now there’s no way to know the optimum amount of space, so it’s better to err on the side of caution, he says.
“For example, if someone is walking or running in front of you, it’s probably a good idea to stay more than six feet behind them. If that person was infected with COVID-19 and they sneezed or coughed it could create a cloud of aerosol in the air; if you are right behind that person, you might walk or run through that,” says Choi.
Is It Safe to Go Hiking?
Going outside for a hike or even just a walk in the neighborhood is a good way to decompress and reduce stress, says Choi. “Being close to nature is good for you, and I encourage everyone to do that.”
If you’re hiking in a relatively remote location you may not need a face covering or mask, but it’s still a good idea to keep one with you because sometimes there can be groups of people at the trailhead or parking area, explains Choi. “If you’re going to be on a busy trail or park and around a lot of other people and social distancing isn’t possible, you should wear a face covering,” he adds.
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Can I Play Soccer or Basketball? What About Other Sports or Types of Exercise?
Outdoor activities like soccer or basketball require close proximity and even physical contact. ”I think right now the best thing would be either to avoid those activities or expect everyone to use a face covering,” says Choi.
“Keep in mind it can be very difficult to exercise at a moderate or high intensity while wearing face coverings. People do need to take that into consideration because it’s not easy to play sports with your face covered — it can be difficult to breathe,” he says.
Use common sense and always consider how social distancing can be maintained during an activity, suggests Choi. Instead of playing a contact sport, consider tossing a football or frisbee with friends. “Tennis is also a safe sport,” he adds. Continue to use the recommended CDC measures — all participants should wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before and after playing.
As long as you are practicing social distancing, yoga or solo workout type activities are very likely to be safer when practiced outdoors compared with inside. “Even though we haven’t studied individual activities inside and out to see how likely the virus is to be transmitted in each scenario, we know that most of the people who have gotten sick from COVID-19 were in confined spaces,” Choi says. According to a preprint study published April 7, 2020, in medRxiv that examined the spread of the virus in China, only 1 case out of 7,324 was connected to outdoor transmission.
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Outdoor Activities and Public Spaces
Can I Attend a Cookout?
Before you plan anything, you should find out the current local rules around gatherings by checking the website of your state and local health department, recommends Choi. “Getting together with a few people is probably okay as long as you are social distancing, but a large gathering could pose increased risk of infection and you should wear a face covering,” he says.
“If you aren’t from the same household, it’s a good idea to bring your own food, drink, supplies, and utensils to avoid transmitting the virus through surfaces,” says Choi.
Are Swimming Pools Safe?
There’s currently no evidence that the coronavirus can spread from person to person through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water parks. The disinfection with chlorine and bromine that are part of the daily maintenance of the water should inactivate the virus, according to the CDC.
That being said, social distancing and hand-washing once you’re out of the water is recommended to prevent catching or spreading the virus.
Can I Take My Child to the Playground?
The current CDC guidelines recommend against using playgrounds because it’s hard to maintain social distancing and keep the equipment clean and disinfected. If children or adults touch those surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, they may be exposed to COVID-19.
Is It Safe to Take My Dog to the Park or on a Hike?
This is okay as long as you practice social distancing, says Choi. That means keeping your dog on a leash at all times and staying at least six feet away from other people and other dogs, according to the CDC. “We’re not aware of animal to human transmission but there are a lot of things we don’t know; it’s better to be safe than sorry right now,” he says. Because dog parks are more crowded and some dogs may be off leash, you should avoid them for now, per the CDC.
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