COVID-19 is no longer an excuse to stay inside: Here’s what to know about outdoor safety

A new tool to fight COVID-19 is on the rise across the United States: Warm, fresh air. 

Spring and summer weather will provide opportunities for people — vaccinated or not — to enjoy low-risk, outdoor activities to better their physical and mental health, experts say.

It’s a development in the fight against COVID-19 because experts are now confident that it’s much harder for the virus to spread in outdoor conditions — especially when people wear masks and keep their distance.

“There (was) a lot of fear in the early parts of the pandemic because we didn’t know how it spread,” Gleb Tsipursky, author of a book about adapting to “the new abnormal” of COVID-19, told USA TODAY.

That uncertainty was at play last year as states closed beaches and parks and has continued to influence policy this year. In February, University of California, Berkeley made headlines for banning outdoor exercise.

But research has shown that simple precautions are usually enough to keep you safe from COVID-19 when outside, experts say.

“Outdoors are not only safe, but really, really important,” said Nooshin Razani, a University of California, San Francisco professor of epidemiology and biostatistics. 

Razani co-authored a systematic review of studies on indoor versus outdoor spread of COVID-19 and similar viruses. That widely-cited study found there was about a 20 times higher chance of transmission indoors than outdoors.

Razani is among the experts hoping to encourage Americans to spend more time outside in the coming weeks. 

“When I see people on a beach, I feel good that they’re not gathering indoors,” Razani said.

Can COVID-19 spread outside?

COVID-19 can spread outside, but it spreads much more easily inside.

Indoor spread is so pervasive that researchers, including Razani, have struggled to document clear examples of outdoor transmission. That’s in part because many situations where the virus may spread outside also have an indoor component — like a summer camp, for example.

It’s relatively easy for a highly contagious respiratory virus to spread inside: particles, often from infected people not yet showing symptoms, easily build up in uncirculated air, Tsipursky and Razani explained.

Indoor spaces contain recycled air: “You’re all exposed to the same air … that should freak people out,” Razani said.

What is safe to do outside?

Experts are generally hesitant to label any activity completely safe because a host of factors are at play.

Going for a walk on a beach with members of your family? That’s almost certainly safe.

Watch: Here are the most startling COVID-19 statistics from the last year

Lounging on the beach all day close by a bunch of maskless friends? That would likely make health experts uncomfortable.

“It’s hard to give rules,” said Dr. David P. Eisenman, a professor of medicine and public health with University of California, Los Angeles’ Fielding School of Public Health.

Eisenman and other experts agreed: Standard COVID-19 precautions — especially keeping your distance and wearing a mask — are especially effective at keeping you safe from the virus when spending time outside.

You are “very, very unlikely to catch COVID” if you’re keeping socially distant outside and wearing a mask when you can, Tsipursky said.

Exercising outdoors with members of your household is among the most commonly cited examples of a safe activity. (And Eisenman encourages anyone worried about catching the virus from an unmasked passerby to let that worry go: That’s “not going to pose a risk to you.”)

But there are plenty of low-risk options for socializing outdoors with people outside your family too.

Sports where it’s easy to keep your distance from competitors — like tennis or disk golf — are generally low risk,  Eisenman recommended. Socially-distanced picnics with a few people are a good option, Tsipursky said.

What shouldn’t I do outside?

It may be more difficult for COVID-19 to spread outside, but that doesn’t mean you should let your guard down.

Tightly packed crowds are still dangerous. Spending long periods of time with people outside your household still increases your risk. And masks still reduce your risk of catching or spreading the virus.

That’s why spring break is still causing concern among health experts.

The primary worry, experts say, is that partying is occurring at a crucial moment in the fight against the coronavirus: More and more vaccines are being administered each day, yet more and more cases of variants – which are highly transmissible – are being reported.

“Bars are particularly dangerous,” said Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “Because not only do they tend to be crowded, but you know, a lot of times, they’re loud, and so you have to shout and that increases the spread of the virus, you’re spewing out the virus.”

Making matters worse, they say, is that students will be enjoying their break as more states continue to relax restrictions they had in place, such as mask mandates. 

Is there any harm in just staying inside?

Experts say there may be. Spending time outside helps people exercise and has mental health benefits.

The virus tends to be worse for people who aren’t active, Razani said: “Staying indoors has risks also.”

For those who have been been avoiding outdoor activities out of caution, Tsipursky points out that depriving yourself of joy doesn’t necessarily keep you any safer from the virus.

“COVID is not a punishment for sin,” he said. It’s a respiratory virus that primarily spreads between people in close proximity, especially in poorly ventilated spaces.

“Just enjoy your time outside.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes

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