Evidence mounts that outside is safer when it comes to COVID-19

Health experts say people are significantly less likely to get the coronavirus while outside, a fact that could add momentum to calls to reopen beaches and parks closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Being outside shouldn’t be seen as completely safe, health experts say. People should continue to avoid crowds and maintain six feet of distance from others to keep away from the virus.

But experts are increasingly confident in evidence showing that the coronavirus spreads much more readily indoors than outdoors, a finding that could help guide policymakers seeking to figure out ways to end lockdowns that have shuttered much of the nation’s economy.

“Parks, beaches — as long as they’re not cheek to jowl, cycling, walking, this is good,” said Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Enjoy nature. It’s good for us, and it has very low risk of spreading the virus.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) on Wednesday said coronavirus figures suggested the state might be able to begin reopening next week. If it does, he said it would include opening state parks and beaches and allowing outdoor gym classes and religious services.

“Studies suggest activities held outdoors as temperatures warm pose lower COVID risk than those done in confined indoor spaces,” tweeted Scott Gottlieb, the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner. “As we re-open, states should look to ease rules to allow more recreational, religious, and business activities to occur outside.”

Some cities are already considering options that might help local businesses while keeping people safe.

Hartford, Conn., is one of the cities exploring allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating options into parking lots or other outdoor spaces.

Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, has gone further by opening its central square and other outdoor areas to restaurant seating. 

“We need creative solutions, and I think things like closing down streets and having some dispersed [seating] from restaurants is a nice creative solution,” said Eleanor Murray, a professor at Boston University School of Public Health. 

“We can’t continue this lockdown indefinitely,” she said. “It’s just not going to be psychologically or economically feasible.”

Gottlieb pointed to a study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, that examined outbreaks in 320 Chinese cities outside Hubei province, where the coronavirus is believed to have originated, between Jan. 4 and Feb. 11 and found only one outbreak that occurred outdoors. 

Experts warned that people are not completely safe outdoors and that it is important to stay six feet away from people outside.

“You don’t want to be in a crowd, regardless of where that crowd is,” Murray said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) ordered beaches in Orange County to close last week after they became packed with people during a heat wave.  

Murray said that even outside on the beach, people who do not live together should stay six feet apart and that activities such as beach volleyball should be avoided because multiple people touching the same equipment can spread the virus. 

That means playgrounds also are a danger, she said. 

“While it’s great to have parks and beaches, you probably don’t want playground equipment open,” Murray said.

The virus is harder to transmit outdoors because the droplets that spread it are more easily disturbed or dispersed outside in the elements than in a closed, confined, indoor setting. 

“It definitely spreads more indoors than outdoors,” said Roger Shapiro, a professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “The virus droplets disperse so rapidly in the wind that they become a nonfactor if you’re not really very close to someone outdoors — let’s say within six feet.”

As people go outside for their daily exercise and pass by one another, experts offered reassurance that simply passing someone for a split second outdoors presents a low risk. 

“The virus can’t magically teleport,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “It needs a cough or sneeze or something, singing, talking, spitting. … It’s not magnetism or something like that.”

Adalja said some of the decisions around activities such as sitting closer than six feet away from a friend outside on the grass have to do with how much risk someone is personally willing to accept. 

“There’s not some kind of black or white answer to all of this stuff,” he said. “People are going to have to make a lot of decisions about what risk tolerance they have.”

Indoor spaces such as barbershops are certainly higher risk, though. There are more shared surfaces that could transmit the virus, such as the barber’s chair. Another danger, especially in the summer, is air conditioning, which can circulate the virus through the air. 

“If you’re in an indoor space that has the air conditioning blasting … that air conditioning might be blowing the droplets straight at you,” said Murray, the Boston University professor. 

Even outdoors, Adalja said people should be mindful of keeping their distance and washing their hands.

“You can go to the beach, you can go to the park, and it can be safe,” he said. “It’s just you have to be cognizant of the fact that the virus is there.”

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