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Risk versus reward: How safe are popular summer outdoor activities?

Risk versus reward: How safe are popular summer outdoor activities?


(NEW YORK) — All 50 states have now reopened in some form, and after months staying inside, Americans are itching to experience the joys of summer.

“There’s a tremendous urge for American’s to get out,” Dr. Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at University of California Irvine, told ABC News. “You can feel it.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Many experts said that there could be a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall after a lull in the summer, so Noymer said this could be a time to take advantage, while taking prudent precautions.

“In the fall I’m expecting things to get worse, not better. Respiratory diseases always get worse in the fall,” he said. “People need to have a summer break. We can’t just stay in the basement for 24 months until the vaccine comes.”

But can it be done safely? Americans have been left thinking about this question as beaches, outdoor bars, farmers markets and golf courses begin to reopen. According to health experts, the answer is both yes and no. All those activities are not created equal in the eyes of a virus — outdoor bars especially present a health challenge relative to the others — but ultimately, experts said it all comes down to how much risk one is willing to take.

“People should figure out how at risk they are, and then determine how risky they want to be,” Dr. Noymer said, noting that the only way to completely avoid contracting the virus is by completely isolating inside — an unrealistic expectation. “We’re in the land of trade-offs now.”

Noymer cautioned that people in high-risk populations, such the elderly and those with underlying conditions as well as those who are in close contact with members of high-risk populations, especially may want to reconsider activities that could further endanger them or their loved ones. Health officials said the virus can spread from seemingly healthy, even asymptomatic carriers to the more vulnerable.

“We’re all in this together,” Dr. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the Rutgers School of Public Health, added. “That is the nature of humanity and diseases.”

Generally, the risk of transmitting the virus is much lower outdoors than it is indoors, experts say, a good thing when it comes to outdoor summer activities.

Dr. Erin Bromage, an associate professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who wrote a viral blog post on contracting the illness, broke it down in a simple formula: Getting sick is based on how much virus you are exposed to over what period of time. A person is less likely to be exposed to a large amount of virus droplets for a long amount of time when outside, where distancing measures and better air circulation can disperse the virus droplets.

“Outdoors is inherently safer than indoors, but its about the number of people around,” Bromage said. “If you are outdoors and you can maintain at least 6 feet from anybody, your risk is very low.”

“As soon as you put people inside, if you don’t have good filtration, [virus droplets are] able to accumulate in that environment, so now its not a matter of six feet away — potentially everybody can get a low dose,” Bromage continued.

Studies seem to support the idea that indoor transmission is the most high risk.

So what does that mean for popular summer outings? Raymond said “it all comes down to the nature of the space, the number of people in it, and how much time you spend there.”

ABC News asked these three experts to weigh in on the safety of several popular outdoor summer hotspots from beaches to outdoor bars to community fairs.

For all of them, they note social distancing measures are key, as is mask-wearing in many cases, though some activities are riskier than others. Overall though, these summer activities are in the “realm of tolerable risk,” one expert said.

“Most of them are safe, but its how you behave when your in those spaces,” Bromage said.


For beaches, “it depends on the day,” Raymond said. “A walk on a not-crowded beach is great.”

But Bromage said even a more crowded beach, where distance is being maintained, “doesn’t present a huge leap in risk compared to an empty one.”

Noymer said that it’s unavoidable that some people may catch coronavirus at the beach — like just about any public place — but “many less than shopping malls.”

Sports: Tennis, golf, soccer

Noymer said outdoor recreation, including tennis and golf “is okay,” given that they are non-contact sports where people maintain distance.

“If playing with household members you don’t need to mask,” he added, “but if with strangers, then mask up.”

When it comes to other sports, such as soccer, the risk goes up. If people were to play soccer, Noymer said coaches, refs and substitute players should mask, though it would be difficult for players to do the same.

“Remember: we’re in the land of trade-offs now. The only zero-risk activity is staying at home,” Normer noted. “It’s about balancing risk versus rewards. The reward is some semblance of a normal childhood.”


Noymer said swimming in both the ocean and a chlorinated pool is completely fine, as “the virus is adapted for respiratory droplet transmission, and it doesn’t survive in water environments.”

The problem arises with the social activity associated with swimming pools — hanging around beach chairs and socializing.

“Where the problem comes is that swimming pools are social events,” Noymer said. “That’s what concerns me more than swimming its self. Some kind of social activity around the swimming pool is more of a concern.”

Community fairs

Raymond said fairs are “tricky” as well “because they are so crowded.” However, they can be doable. Since everyone is outside, and if everyone were to be masks, Raymond said, that would be okay.

“The eating part can happened with spaced-out tables,” he added.

Farmers markets

Experts seem to agree that farmers markets, when appropriate social distancing is being maintained and masking is occurring, are safe.

“If the clients are masking and the farmers are masking, then I think outdoor farmers markets are fine,” Noymer said.

Raymond also said he “would be comfortable” with people going if the crowds are limited and people were masked, “just like a grocery store.”

But Bromage said the safer spaces are ones where you can physically distance further, and a farmers market “where you have many short interactions walking by [others]” can add to the risk.

Outdoor Bars

This is where experts have taken pause. Outdoor bars are “trickier,” Noymer said, because they tend to be more crowded, despite the “best intentions” of everyone involved, and have more touch surfaces, which have a low but-not-zero possibility of transferring the virus.

“This is definitely for people with an appetite for greater risk,” Noymer added.

“Bars present their own unique problem,” Bromage added. “Even with a mask, it is higher risk.”

One thing to keep in mind? The wind. It can be helpful in dispersing virus particles, but also has the potential to waft them into you.

“If you are directly downwind of someone infected, those respiratory droplets could be blowing directly at you,” Bromade said. “That would be the same as talking face-to-face indoors.”

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