Coronavirus Is Here. Should Kids Still Have Playdates?

Sorry parents, but social situations and COVID-19 just don't mix.

by Jen Monnier
Originally Published: 
Five kids playing soccer on a sand beach

The novel coronavirus has sparked a wave of cancellations. Sports events, concerts, school classes, and conferences have all been called off in order to keep the virus from spreading between people. But transmissions continue apace. Why? Because coronavirus isn’t just hitting the big crowded spaces. With those shuttered, it’s time to look at your own life and the social contacts you make — contacts like playdates.

First, a reminder on how this virus physically spreads: The virus hops a ride on little droplets in your nose or mouth. When someone infected with the virus touches their face they can pick up the droplets and then leave them on whatever surface they touch. Someone else who touches that surface and then touches their face can then be infected. The droplets can also be launched onto surfaces or people when an infected person sneezes or coughs.

You might think that a playdate with one kid that has no symptoms is safe. And it may be. But if there are cases in your neighborhood, the chances of kids having it rises. And research shows that folks can be asymptomatic for 2 to 5 days. Meaning the kid looks fine, but spreads the virus. Look at it this way: If there are cases in your area, the virus is likely spreading (some estimates show that each person with the virus will infect up to two and a half others). If one kid with the virus has two one-on-one playdates in two days. And those kids each have two in two days, who also have two and so on. Within two weeks, there are 256 kids contacted (assuming they are all single children with two parents who have contacted no one else, that becomes 768 people who have been exposed — though not necessarily infected). The real number of exposures from those two playdates is obviously much much higher. This is why the NBA shutters and the president declared a National Emergency. A deadly virus that spreads easily spreads even from the most innocuous of places.

Not all of the people exposed from a playdate are at risk. In fact, since these are kids and their (likely) under-50 parents, they are not part of the at-risk demographic. They might get the disease, they’ll suffer a bit (fever, cough, and shortness of breath are common), but chances are they’ll survive. Skipping the playdate, however, is not entirely an act of self-interest. Those most at risk include the elderly, people with pre-existing conditions (like heart disease) and people who are immunocompromised (like cancer patients). Furthermore, if the virus continues to spread, it could prove to be a massive burden on the healthcare system. Hospitals and clinics can only care for so many people at any one time. When they get overloaded, some sick people can begin to fall into the cracks and not get the care they need. A situation like this could be life-threatening to many.

If everyone works together to slow the spread, there could be fewer cases of sick people at any one time and healthcare providers would have the capacity to treat everyone. This means social isolation which means thinking twice about any and all social situations. It means rethinking the playdate.

If you’ve been trapped at home with your child, and you feel cabin fever setting in, a playdate might sound like just the cure. But given the risks and the importance of slowing the virus’ spread, you might wonder if it’s worth it. Each person has to decide what steps they can take. Here’s what to consider in your decision.

How Many Kids Will Be At This Playdate?

Children are considered low-risk for the disease, which means that even if they catch it they will very likely survive it. But they can still catch it, and it would not be fun for either of you if they did. They’ll likely run a fever and have cold-like symptoms including a cough and runny nose. They may also vomit or have diarrhea. More critically, they can spread it to anyone else they’re around.

As a general rule for playdates during the pandemic, fewer kids is better. If your kid has plans to play with one child, that’s less risky than if they are playing with two children. Seriously reconsider any large group playdate.

Where Is This Playdate Being Held?

Within the U.S., there are a number of hotbeds where the virus is most common. In places like Washington state, New York and California parents should be extra cautious about getting their kids together with other kids to play. Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 map (or this flashier map from Johns Hopkins) to learn how many cases have been confirmed in your state.

Keep in mind that testing is not widely available in the U.S. A lot of people are probably infected without even knowing it, and these people will not be counted in the map.

Who Do You Live With and See Regularly?

Do your children spend a lot of time with their grandparents? Does your partner have a chronic condition? Do you plan to see a friend who is undergoing cancer treatment any time soon? These are the types of questions you should ask before taking your child to a playdate with other kids.

If you or your child becomes infected with the novel coronavirus, you could infect anyone else you are around in the next couple of weeks. Think about all the people in your life who you could infect. If any of them are in the high-risk group, consider canceling events where you or your child could become infected — including playdates.

Also, consider whether you or your partner is pregnant. Although scientists know very little about coronavirus infection during pregnancy, pregnant people may be more prone to severe symptoms if they are infected.

Preparing for Playdates

If you decide to go through with the playdate, have supplies on hand to clean toys. It can be hard to stop children from touching their faces, but washing their hands frequently can offset some of the risks. And be on the lookout for symptoms like fever, cough or shortness of breath in you or your child. These are all signs that you could be infected, and should call off a playdate.

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