How To Safely Play Outside During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Social isolation and a home quarantine is the way we all can kill COVID-19 fast. But people need to walk. Kids need to play outside. Here's how to do it safely.

by Isobel Whitcomb
Originally Published: 
A kid playing outside during the Coronavirus pandemic

It’s a good time to be paranoid. There’s a pandemic and the experts, working day and night to slow the spread, don’t have an answer one of the most basic questions: Why does COVID-19 spread so rapidly? If you compare it to the 2003 SARS outbreak, another similar coronavirus that ended up infecting a total of 8,098 people, the question becomes head-scratching, even to epidemiologists. Experts are working toward a definitive answer (and potentially, a vaccine), but in the meantime, we have some very strong guidelines from the leading minds.

First, evidence points out that the main answer to this question is that people are spreading the virus, whether they have symptoms or not. This is the prime driver, no doubt about it. But it’s not the only one. There is also the fact that a variety of surfaces — metal, plastic, and cardboard, for starters — have been proven in labs to host the live virus for days, weeks even.

The answer to both of these is keeping contact with the outside at a minimum and making social distancing the norm. In other words, the quarantine going on in your house is your best bet.

But people need to walk. Kids need to play outside. Humans can’t be confined for months without going too crazy. When you do get out, avoiding people is essential, but It very well might be the case. But with some logic and the latest science, you can navigate it. Here are your rules.

Avoid the Playground Like the Plague

Even if the local playground is still open and relatively empty, skip it, says Alice Huang, a virologist at the California Institute of Technology. COVID-19 can persist on the jungle gym’s hard plastic and metal surfaces for days, research suggests. Scientists from the National Institutes of Health, Princeton University, and the University of California Los Angeles dropped small amounts of COVID-19 on different surfaces to see how long it would last. Their study, which was published on the preprint site MedRxiv and has yet to be peer-reviewed, found that it took 16 hours for only half the virus to die when dropped on plastic. On stainless steel, it took 13 hours. Along with playgrounds, parents should avoid splash pads, trampoline parks, zoos, climbing gyms — any parks that involve potentially contaminated play equipment.

Enjoy Trails and Open Fields (Without People)

With playgrounds off-limits, hiking trails, beaches, and open fields are all safe options for play. The softer surfaces found in these open spaces tend to be less hospitable to viruses than the plastic and metal of play structures. Still, there’s one caveat to that recommendation: “First and foremost, avoid crowds,” says Josh Snodgrass, an infectious disease expert at the University of Oregon.

People weary of social distancing and shelter-in-place orders are flocking to city parks, hiking trails, and beaches. If an outdoor space is so crowded that it’s difficult to stay more than six feet from others, it’s not a much safer option than the playground, Huang says.

Social Distance Your Pets Too

When out at a park, it’s important that parents caution their kids not to pet others’ dogs, Huang says. There’s no evidence that dogs can directly pass coronavirus to humans (although one dog tested weakly positive for the virus). But just like any other surface, dogs’ fur can carry COVID-19, making them potentially risky to pet.

Heavier use of outdoor spaces also means that sand, dirt, and wood — all of which draw kids like magnets — are more likely to be contaminated with COVID-19. Although viruses prefer hard surfaces, some evidence suggests that other coronaviruses, like the one that caused the SARS outbreak, could still survive on soft surfaces for hours. With this in mind, is it okay to let kids pick up random objects from the side of heavily used trails or at busy beaches? “I wouldn’t encourage it,” Huang says.

But if a kid does pick up a stick at the side of the trail, parents don’t need to freak out. The chances that an infected person touched that one piece of bark less than a few hours before your kid are relatively low, especially when an outdoor space is seldom used. So in these cases, let the kids dig in the sand and climb trees.

You Probably Don’t Need to Worry About the Open Air

It’s uncertain whether COVID-19 is airborne (able to linger in the air). The virus spreads through the droplets of mucus and saliva that go flying when we cough and sneeze. Whether or not a virus is considered airborne is based on the size of the droplets that carry it (it’s a bit more complicated than that; check out this excellent explainer on what “airborne” means to different experts). Droplets larger than five microns tend to travel no more than six feet before falling onto a nearby surface. But droplets smaller than five microns, also called aerosols, can hang in the air for longer — and according to the recent MedRxiv study, coronavirus may be able to persist on these tiny droplets. After spraying the virus into a rotating drum, scientists found it hung in the air for at least three hours.

Aerosols are less of a danger in open environments with good air ventilation. “If it’s an open space with few or no people in it, I wouldn’t worry at all about it,” says Snodgrass. But in a crowded area, the potential for coronavirus to travel in the air makes it spread harder to predict. For example, it’s possible that on a windy day, COVID-19 could travel even farther than six feet, Huang says. “Avoid people as much as you can,” she says. If finding an empty outdoor area is impossible during the day, go first thing in the morning. “That gives a whole evening for the virus to die off,” Huang says.

Your Backyard Is Your Friend

Of course, the safest option of all is to stay at home as much as possible. “If you’re lucky and have your own backyard, that would obviously be the ideal,” Huang says.

Parents of kids who are immunocompromised should exercise extra caution, steering clear of those heavily trafficked areas entirely and staying indoors as much as possible. Parents of infants should also be extra cautious, Snodgrass says. How vulnerable babies are to the virus is unclear (there’s only been one infant death). But then again, babies can’t run outdoors — so Snodgrass sees little point in taking a risk by going out.

Of course, families should also limit trips outside for less playful activities, like grocery shopping. Food delivery is the safer option — but there’s no need to disinfect the groceries when they arrive, unless that makes you feel better, Snodgrass says.

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial that we adhere to social distancing guidelines. “I would really push to minimize those outdoor experiences in the first few weeks,” he says. Our ability to stay away from others now could help determine how things play out in future weeks, he added. It’s especially important now that families don’t travel far outside their city to get into nature. That just encourages the virus to spread from dense urban areas to more rural locales.

Snodgrass also suggests planning the week ahead of time. “Be proactive, not reactive,” Snodgrass says. Families need to develop a routine that’s sustainable for the long haul — months, potentially. That might include heading out to the park first thing in the morning, before crowds arrive, or scootering on a quiet street. “Think about tomorrow. Think, ‘What are we going to do with our day’?” he says.

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