Summer is a time for fun. A time for the beach, vacations, and cookouts with friends and family. We get it—it’s hard to resist the temptation of hot sun, cool waves, and good company, even as a pandemic rages across the country.
But even in states where the virus seems to be under control, there’s no 100 percent-effective way to safely go outside. All you can do is choose how to mitigate the risk you take. But when you’re trying to get a taste of that sweet, sweet summer, it’s important to remember that your decisions can also affect the people you’re with.
Some general rules
Without a strong foundation, your coronavirus avoidance strategies will crumble like a sand castle built too close to the water’s edge. There are three things we know decrease COVID-19 transmission, and implementing all of them at once will make your other risk mitigation actions even more effective.
- Social distancing: Keep a distance of 6 feet or more between you and anybody you don’t live with or who is outside your social bubble.
- Wearing a mask: Whether it’s a surgical mask, a cloth mask, or a bandana, keep your mouth and nose covered whenever you’re in public. This is especially important indoors and anywhere social distancing is not possible.
- Washing your hands: Make sure you scrub for 20 seconds and do it as often as you can. Good ol’ water and soap destroy COVID-19, but if they’re not available, you can use a hand sanitizer with at least a 60 percent alcohol concentration.
Who you hang out with determines how safe you are
If you’re only spending time with the people you live with, you’re starting from the safest side of the spectrum. You’ve already been consistently exposed to these people, so your risk of infection is as low as it can be. From there, it gets more complicated.
“With each concentric circle that you go out from in your routine exposure, the risk is different,” says Jason Farley, a professor and nurse practitioner in the infectious diseases division at Johns Hopkins University.
If you’re part of a social bubble—also known as quaranteam or quar-pod—and everyone in it has only been hanging out with each other, your risk will be higher, but controlled.
Things get more complicated if you want to widen your social circle. Exactly how much more risk you’ll take on will depend on a series of factors. These include the amount of people you interact with, if they’re essential or frontline workers, if they’ve traveled recently, and just how carefully they’ve been following general guidelines. Normally this would be none of your business, but what other people do or don’t do has become especially important considering a lot of them have been forgoing masks while in socially distanced groups.
That’s not necessarily the safest idea, especially when cases of a new disease are increasing, Farley says.
He recommends having honest conversations with the people you intend to interact with about their behavior so you can make informed and educated decisions. Ruling someone out just because their occupation puts them at higher risk on a day-to-day basis is not necessarily an obvious move—it’s important to find a sweet spot between risk management and stigmatizing.
Ultimately, the decision about how much risk you’re willing to expose yourself and your household to is a personal one. Just keep in mind that the fewer people you see, the safer you all are, and that whatever you decide might also affect others.
“We need to think as a much more interconnected society,” Farley says. “If we become infected there’s a potential downstream transmission to someone that may not be asymptomatic and may succumb to the virus.”
Now, let’s get into specifics.
Having a stoop beer with your friends
Since bars and restaurants shut down and drinks to-go became a thing, having stoop beers—or whatever beverage your heart desires—became a widespread practice. It’s especially common in cities that closed streets to improve socially distanced mobility, like New York. Even though drinking on the street remains illegal in most states, people have increasingly taken their drinks to stoops, park benches, and even the curb. Law enforcement appears to have been inconsistent with how it handles such infractions.
The benefit of this activity is that it keeps groups small and away from each other. That is until someone comes in or out of the building you’re sitting in front of. This is why even if you’re only hanging with two people you live or share a social bubble with, you’d still need to wear masks when you’re close to potential passerby.
Going to picnics and barbecues
The increased level of risk of having a picnic or a barbecue stems mainly from shared food and utensils, and problems related to things you just cannot (legally) do outdoors, like going to the bathroom.
First, assess the location—eating in someone’s backyard will always be safer than doing it in a park and using public tables or barbecue pits. But it’s not only about public versus private spaces. In this case, size matters and will determine just how many people can safely gather in the same place at the same time.
Think about how people will flow: Where will they enter the space? Where are they most likely to sit and stand? Is there going to be only one area with food? If the space doesn’t allow people to spread out and socially distance, you might want to move your gathering to a park. You can also ask your guests to wear masks at all times, even when outside, but the fact that they’ll need to move them to eat and drink will make it harder for everybody to comply.
No matter where you are, bathrooms are an issue. If you have people over, they will eventually have to use the facilities, which will require them to step indoors.
“Most people really don’t feel comfortable asking their friends to wear a mask in their home. And that’s one of the largest places where our risk mitigation plans fall down,” Farley says.
To prevent this, he suggests having a clear strategy and communicating it to all your guests ahead of time so everyone feels comfortable.
In parks, public restrooms will be your only choice. Check your local parks and recreation department’s website to see if bathrooms are open at all and what measures they’re taking to reduce risk. In New York, for example, park restrooms across the state have recently reopened and are being disinfected daily. If you have to go, wear a mask, avoid unnecessarily touching any surfaces, and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. You might want to have some alcohol-based sanitizer to rub on your hands again as you go out, in case you had to touch a doorknob.
As of now, there’s no scientific evidence on the transmissibility of COVID-19 through food, but there are numerous studies assessing the prevalence of the virus on various surfaces—it can last from a few hours to a few days. This is especially critical to keep in mind at a picnic or barbecue, where it’s highly likely you’ll find yourself sharing food, utensils, tables, and chairs with other people.
Again, the amount of risk you take is up to you, but potential mitigation strategies include having everyone bring their own food and tools, handing your guests individual zip-top plastic bags with finger food, and having just one person cook and serve everyone after thoroughly washing their hands.
At a picnic, it’s also a good idea to separate people onto specific blankets, and have one set of tools and food for each one. To make it easier for everyone, finger food, individual popsicles, and single-serving fruit—like bananas, apples, and oranges—are a much better choice than the classic potato salad, for instance.
When it comes to fun and play, make sure to keep it distanced. Leave your frisbees and balls at home and opt instead for any games that don’t require you to exchange things—yes, that includes cards. Charades is a great option, as is anything you can play as a group with your phones or other devices, like Heads Up! (available for iOS and Android).
Finally, be prepared to take everything back with you, including your leftovers and any trash. This has a double effect: you protect park staff from being potentially infected by you and your guests, and you also protect other people from accidentally coming into contact with your garbage when using the trash cans.
Going to the beach or the pool
Ditching the park for a beach or a pool is definitely one the most summer-y things you can do. Unfortunately, it’s pretty likely hundreds of other people had the same idea.
The rules for minimizing your risk of infection at the beach are pretty much the same as the ones you’d follow in the park, but a lot of people worry about how the virus may spread in the water.
“It’s unclear whether the virus can remain infectious in saltwater,” says Katie Day, an environmental scientist at the Surfrider Foundation. “Although there is at least one study underway, there are still no published results that test if COVID-19 can remain viable in the ocean.”
Still, Day thinks the water at beaches is a low-risk zone. Dilution and exposure to ultraviolet light and other microorganisms, she says, should keep the risk of getting infected at bay. “High concentrations could be a different story, though,” she says.
What we do know is that traces of COVID-19 have been found in stool and fecal matter, and although Day says there’s no confirmation on whether these traces remain infectious after their journey through the digestive tract, she still recommends checking the water quality at your local beach before you dive in. To see if any advisories are in place where you’re going, you can check out Surfrider’s website.
Most public pools around the country are closed due to the pandemic, but if you have a fancy friend with a pool in their backyard, know that as long as you respect social distancing and the pool underwent maintenance after the winter months, you should be fine. The virus that causes COVID-19 is highly susceptible to traditional chlorination and bleach, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say, so the water in properly managed and chlorinated pools is considered low-risk.
No matter who’s going to the beach with you, be sure to avoid crowds. This will surely depend on the size of the beach, but in most cases, people tend to be lazy and gather wherever the main entrance is—usually near parking lots or where public transportation stops. Outsmart the crowds, put some legwork, and move toward either end of the beach, where there is enough space to socially distance yourself both on the sand and in the water. Just make sure a lifeguard is still in sight in case you need to ask for help.
But it’s not only about where you’ll set up camp.
“If you’re in Central Park and there are lots of people and you have to walk around crowds of them to find your little patch of grass, then the issue is not necessarily finding that spot,” Farley says. “If you have to navigate through a bunch of people, the exposure is the way there.”
Even if you have to take a longer route, wear a mask and try to avoid crowds as much as you can to get to your oasis in the sand.
Because you won’t be able to wash your hands as often as you should, toss some hand sanitizer in your beach bag. Just keep in mind that you might have to apply it twice in order to actually destroy any virus that might be lurking on your skin. Alcohol-based sanitizers won’t do a good job if your hands are covered in an oily layer such as the one that sunscreens often leave after application. Even if your hands are not obviously greasy, sanitize them twice to make sure you’re actually breaking the structure of the virus and not just removing the sunscreen.