Health Care

You can have outdoor fun in the COVID era, but keep your distance

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This is part of our Coronavirus Update series in which Harvard specialists in epidemiology, infectious disease, economics, politics, and other disciplines offer insights into what the latest developments in the COVID-19 outbreak may bring.

With COVID-19 looming over the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, warm-weather fun is not only possible but also advisable, according to a Harvard healthy-building expert. But he nonetheless warned that, if mismanaged, unfettered gatherings could spark fresh summer outbreaks.

“This is going to be a very different summer,” said Joe Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of its Healthy Buildings Program. “We’re ready for a change, we’re all ready to get out of this. But we don’t yet have the systems in place to manage this effectively. So we should expect that things will be very different this summer. I don’t think this is going to be anything like past summers.”

Allen, who spoke Tuesday at a press briefing, expects there will be less travel — though he’s written recently that airlines are relatively safe — and that regular vacation areas will have fewer visitors. But what summer winds up looking like will vary not only by activity but also by location. The summer of 2020 will look a lot different in Montana than in Manhattan.

“[It doesn’t] have to be totally restrictive, where you can’t get enjoyment out of going to a park, going for a run, seeing people but at a little bit of a distance. … [But] will this be a normal summer? Definitely not, nor should it be.”
— Joe Allen

Allen has been a proponent of keeping parks open and getting outside, safely, even during the strict social-distancing phase now waning across the U.S. He said getting outdoors has multiple benefits, both physical and mental, and — due to the “unlimited dilution” of viral particles in a breeze and the virus’ low survival on sunny surfaces — lower risks than remaining indoors.

But even with travel, camping, and beach-going on the summer agenda, COVID and the potential to become infected or to infect others should always be taken into consideration, and steps should be taken to minimize risk. In many cases, he suggested, a phased approach to reopening outdoor spaces will allow managers and workers to ensure that the systems in place can control crowds and keep people safe before inviting in larger crowds.

The safest summer activities will occur within established personal networks, involving in many cases the people with whom you share a household. Allen said the onus will fall most heavily on individuals and their willingness to take the now-familiar steps to ensure safety. He recommended people think of access to a park or a beach not as a right but a privilege, one that not only can be revoked quickly, but that should be if laxity sparks outbreaks.