Story at a glance
- This week, every state in the U.S. has started reopening to some extent.
- The weather is tempting people to spend more time outdoors, but there’s a nonzero risk for coronavirus transmission.
- Practice physical distancing and wear a mask, be aware of how many people are crowding outdoors and keep your mask on even if it is hot.
It’s getting nicer outside in many parts of the U.S. And as people turn to outdoor spaces, it’s still important to consider that we are in the middle of a public health crisis.
This week, all 50 states have started lifting restrictions to some degree, and more people will be venturing outdoors.
How risky is it?
There aren’t any hard and fast rules regarding outdoor activities, but the general rules apply. Stay 6 feet apart from people outside of your household and wear a mask.
The danger of leaving your home is being near people who could expose you to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But there’s a difference if you are going to the park or if you are going to the supermarket. “I think outdoors is so much better than indoors in almost all cases,” says aerosol researcher Linsey Marr at Virginia Tech to the New York Times (NYT). “There’s so much dilution that happens outdoors. As long as you’re staying at least six feet apart, I think the risk is very low.”
In a preprint study that has not yet been peer-reviewed for an academic journal, only one outbreak of two cases in a group of outbreaks in China resulted from transmission that occurred in an outdoor environment, while 254 outbreaks occurred in homes and 108 in transport.
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That said, you can go outside safely, but you should take precautions. “The risk is lower outdoors, but it’s not zero,” says Shan Soe-Lin at the Yale Jackson Institute for Global Affairs to the NYT. “And I think the risk is higher if you have two people who are stationary next to each other for a long time, like on a beach blanket, rather than people who are walking and passing each other.”
It’s important to note that the 6-feet distance does not mean you are completely safe. It’s a distance that minimizes the risk of transmission, but it’s likely on a scale. Air movement also affects how far pathogens can move. Droplets from sneezes and coughs can linger in the air for varying lengths of time depending on their size.
“The good news is that we do know that while the virus can persist in the environment on different surfaces and in different environments, it does lose infectivity over time,” says virologist Angela Rasmussen at Columbia University to Vox. “So if you inhale a large number of total [virus particles] but only a small number of them are infectious, you are at much lower risk of actually getting infected.”
Engineers and other researchers are still looking into how risky it is to be near runners or cyclists, but some early research suggests that a bigger buffer between them might be necessary.
What you can do
Experts generally think that the benefits of going outside outweigh the risks. However, how much risk you are taking will depend on the length of time you are outside and density of people in the outdoor areas you are going to, which will be very different in New York than it will be in less populated areas.
If you are planning to go outside, wear a mask and avoid areas with large numbers of people.
If there is a consistent breeze, be conscious of how many people are upwind and downwind of you.
It’s OK to interact with people outside of your household at a safe distance, but keep your mask on when you are talking because you’re still expelling body fluids and potentially the virus. And shouting and fighting are discouraged.
The longer you are outside, the greater the risk.
Think of it this way. If there is a small amount of risk of being exposed for one hour of activity outside, each hour you spend outside is another small amount of risk, and over time that can add up.
Similarly, if there is one group of three people sitting 6 feet away from you, that is a small amount of risk. But if there are five groups of people sitting 6 feet away from you, that is more risk.
Lastly, take responsibility for all the risk you are exposing yourself and the people around you. Yes, the probability may be low, but again, it is not zero.
For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.
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