Every state in the county is experiencing some degree of “reopening” amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many people are enjoying finally returning to restaurants and seeing friends in person. During Tuesday’s hearing, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy Infection and Diseases, told Congress that being outside is still the safest way to spend time with others. But outdoor COVID-19 exposure risk is not uniform among all activities.
“Outdoor [is] better than indoor,” says Dr. Fauci. “Congregation at a bar inside is bad news. We really got to stop that right now when you have areas that are surging like you see right now.” As long as you maintain social distancing of six feet and wear a mask when you can, your risk of contracting COVID-19 is much lower, he says.
Marcus Plescia, MD, MPH, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, explains that the rate of COVID-19 transmission is much lower when you’re outside.
“When you’re outside there’s a lot more air movements and ability for respiratory droplets, which is where we think less of the transmission occurs, to dissipate into the environment,” says Dr. Plescia. “When people are outside, it’s a lot easier to keep some distance. I do want to make sure we’re clear, just being outside doesn’t mean that you eliminate your risk of getting the infection. Being outside just means that there is a little less risk of transmission.
But not all outdoor activities are low-risk in terms of exposure to COVID-19, explains Dr. Plescia. Below, he’s ranked a few activates based on the risk involved.
Outdoor COVID-19 exposure risk, according to the activity
1. Drinking at an outdoor bar
“There’s some reduction of risk there because you’re outdoors,” says Dr. Plescia. “The problem is that when you’re in a bar, you’re usually there because you’re drinking something so wearing a mask is going to be kind of challenging.” If things get a bit busy and everyone wants to order a drink at the same time, it’s hard to maintain distance. “There’s a point where if you’re close to somebody and you’re talking in an animated way or particularly if they’re coughing or sneezing, then you are subjecting yourself to some significant risk.”
In recent days, states like Arizona and Ohio have reshuttered their bars as COVID-19 cases soar.
“I think that makes sense because [bars are] just an environment where there’s a lot more potential for risk,” says Dr. Plescia. “It’s tough because it’s hard on the bars, I like going to bars so I can understand that people miss that. But it is probably one of the things where you just get in the potential for a lot of risks and then, you know, when people have a few drinks they let their guard down as well and they’re not being as careful.”
2. Eating at an outdoor restaurant
“[Restaurants] tend to be a little more organized [than bars] and there’s more ability to control crowding. In most cases, somebody is coming to your table to serve you, you’re not having to go up to some common area to place an order which is often more the case with a bar so I think that that the risk for that is a little bit safer,” says Dr. Plescia. “But there still is this issue that people at tables are often sitting much closer than six feet from each other. And so there’s that potential that you could have transmission from somebody that you know. Usually, the tables are separated by six feet so you’re not going to be at risk from the person from the party that’s sitting near you.”
When it comes to things like menus and silverware, many restaurants are taking the necessary precautions.
“A lot of restaurants have moved towards having disposable menus and disposable eating utensils,” he says. “But we have also learned that it’s becoming more and more apparent that the main mode of transmission of COVID-19 is respiratory droplets,” so you shouldn’t be too worried about catching the virus from a reusable menu. Err on the side of caution and wash or sanitize your hands frequently.
3. Lounging at a park, beach, or public pool
Spending time at parks and beaches is great because you can spread out—assuming they’re not crowded. When heading toa communal space like these, keep in mind you’ll want to leave if it gets too busy, especially during the holiday weekend.
“The problem in places like beaches and parks during the holiday weekend is that ostensibly if everybody keeps their distance and they’re outside it’s probably okay,” says Dr. Plescia. “But people let their guard down. You’re out there for a while, you strike up a conversation with somebody, or you run into somebody that you know, and although you may have intended to keep six-feet distance from people the next thing you know you sort of forget about the fact that you need to keep some distance.”
You’ll want to be especially careful if you’re heading out for Fourth of July fireworks.
“If you’re going to be with a group, you know, make sure it’s people you know fairly well, and you trust, ideally family members or really close friends who maybe you’ve been hanging out with anyway,” he says. “Because it’s dark, just as an added caution when you’re coming and going keep an eye on who’s around you and try to limit your distance from other people.”
It’s harder to practice safe habits when you’re at the beach or in a pool.
“Wearing masks on the beach is challenging because it’s hot and it’s sandy, and if you want to go in the water you can’t go in the water with your mask on,” he says. And when you’re in the water “you can’t move as quickly, so if somebody is getting too close, you can’t get out of the way quite as quickly as if you were standing on land.”
4. Exercising outside
“If you’re out running by yourself I think you’re probably fine. The only thing I would say is I would encourage people when they’re out running when they run by somebody else to keep a little distance from that person,” says Dr. Plescia. “You never know if somebody may look young and vital but they may have some you know serious underlying conditions that really does put them at risk.”
When you’re exercising with others, the risk increases.
“You never know if that person might be sick and particularly they might be asymptomatic,” he says. “Going running with somebody, keeping a little bit of distance as you run is fine. But if you’re out with your trainer, you then stop and your trainer maybe gives you a little pep talk and is getting very close to you to talk to you and is excited and animated about what a great workout it is, those are the kinds of things you just got to watch out for because you can catch COVID-19 from somebody being too close to you and talking.”
If a you and some friends meet in the park for a HIIT sesh, you may want to stay a little further away from each other since you’ll be breathing much harder.
“If you’re really breathing hard, maybe keep a little bit more distance from other people. I just think that’s probably prudent but six feet is probably still adequate,” he says.
5. Shopping at an outdoor market
You’re safe to visit an outdoor flea market or farmer’s market. But again, stay protected with a face covering and keep your distance.
“If it starts to get crowded it can be hard to keep your distance from people [in a market] and that’s something you want to be cautious of,” says Dr. Plescia. “Also if you’re going to go out to a market, limit your time there. Don’t go and hang around for hours, just go for a brief period. It seems like the risk of passage of the infection through inanimate objects is not a major sort of mode that we’re seeing, but it’s possible. The big precaution there is just to make sure that you wash your hands as soon as you get home or if you can even while you’re there if there are facilities where you can wash your hands. That would be a prudent thing to do.”
6. Playing contact sports
Any sport where you have to touch people is high-risk.
“People need to be careful about sports that result in a lot of proximity or even contact,” says Dr. Plescia. “A good example is basketball. People love to go to the park and play basketball. It’s a fun game. I totally sympathize with that. But it’s an aggressive sport, and there’s a lot of people getting very close and breathing right in somebody else’s face. Something that people need to bear in mind that some of those kinds of sport-related outdoor activities are going to potentially be high risk. Basketball is risky; golf, on the other hand, is probably fine.”
During the hearing, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that these regulations are hard, but don’t let them discourage you.
“We should not look at the public health endeavors as being an obstruction to opening up,” says Dr. Fauci. “We should look at it as a vehicle to opening up. You don’t want to just restrict everything because people are not going to tolerate that. So you can get outdoors, you can interact—wear a mask. Try to avoid the close congregation of people, wash your hands often. But don’t just make it all or none. We’ve got to be able to get people to get out and enjoy themselves within the safe guidelines that we have. So make public health work for you, as opposed to against you.”