COVID-19 hasn't canceled summer entirely. Before you head out to beat the heat, learn all the precautions you can take to reduce your risk of catching the virus.

By Kristin Granero
July 21, 2020
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As temperatures continue to rise and states loosen restrictions around coronavirus precautions, many people are looking to break free from quarantine in hopes of soaking up what's left of summer.

And there are certainly some benefits to getting off the couch and back outdoors. "Studies suggest spending time outside can not only improve your physical health (including boosting your immune system), but also your mental health and general wellbeing," says Suzanne Bartlett-Hackenmiller, M.D., an integrative medicine physician, director of the Institute for Nature and Forest Therapy, and medical advisor for AllTrails. "You just need to plan ahead to make sure you're doing so safely and responsibly."

But at what cost? How risky is it to partake in summer pastimes such as going to the beach, hitting the trails for a hike, or visiting a community pool?

While your COVID-19 risk can vary based on factors such as age, pre-existing health conditions, race, and perhaps even weight and blood type, experts say that no one is truly exempt, meaning everyone has a responsibility to themselves, as well as those around them, to take proper precautions to avoid transmission.

Where you live and the current state of the spread in that area can also impact your risk, says Rashid A. Chotani, M.D., M.P.H., an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. So, in addition to following the latest CDC guidelines, you'll want to keep track of the disease and respective guidelines in your local and state health departments. "Until we have better control of the disease with a cure and/or prophylactic, it's important to remember the virus is still here," warns Dr. Chotani.

Of course, the coronavirus transmission risk can also depend on the dynamics of the activities you're engaging in. "It's not one size fits all. For each, we must understand what the contact intensity is (for example, the potential number of contacts and potential of modifying one's group behavior)," explains Dr. Chotani.

As a general rule of thumb, experts report that coronavirus seems to spread more easily in enclosed indoor environments than outdoors, and where people are within close proximity. It's believed that the length of exposure also plays a role. "The closer the contact and the longer the duration of that contact, the greater the risk," explains Christine Bishara, M.D., an internist based in NYC specializing in wellness and preventive medicine and founder of From Within Medical.

To minimize COVID risk during common summer activities, follow the three cornerstones of coronavirus safety—social distance, wear a mask, and wash your hands, advises Dr. Chotani. "The question I get most often is: 'If we are social distancing (remaining at least 6 feet apart), why should we wear a mask?'" he says. "Well, I recommend doing both. When you wear a mask outside, you are always cognizant that you need to stay away and the other person is also thinking the same. It's a slightly uncomfortable but simple and highly-effective measure."

If you're craving some summertime fun, take a look at how experts rank some of the common warm-weather outdoor activities in regard to their COVID-19 transmission risk—low, moderate, or high. Plus, learn what you can do to mitigate some of that risk to soak up what's left of summer.

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Walking and Running: Low Risk

While many public running events have been canceled due to coronavirus, experts say that with certain precautions in place, walking and running outside on your own or even with a running buddy are still considered fairly low risk. "The key is to do it alone or with someone with whom you have been quarantining," says Tania Elliott, M.D., clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health. "This is not a time to get a new running buddy because when side-by-side and especially when talking, you can expel and transmit respiratory droplets which can escape even through a non-health grade (as in non-N-95) mask."

You'll also want to keep a safe distance from other runners. "Try to maintain at least 6 feet apart, and to maneuver swiftly in instances where paths are tighter so exposure time is limited," says Dr. Bishara. (Related: This Face Mask Is So Breathable During Workouts, My BF Keeps Stealing Mine to Go Running)

Keep in mind: Experts warn that risk levels can boom with busier times (think: pre- and post-work rush hours) and routes (skip the popular parks and tracks), which can mean coming in contact with more runners who are competing for less space. The same goes for enclosed tracks, which experts point out are generally more confined and don't have as much air circulation.

Hiking: Low Risk

Experts say risks associated with hiking are typically on par with that of walking and running as long as you are doing it solo (keep in mind, not all trails are best or safest tackled alone) or with your quarantine pod. In fact, depending on the location, hiking may come with an even lower risk since, by nature (pun intended), it's a more remote outdoor activity.

Dr. Bartlett-Hackenmiller suggests bringing a mask in case there are other hikers on the trail and avoiding popular trailheads with full parking lots, which can attract larger groups.

You'll also want to aim for off-peak hours, such as weekday mornings, if possible. Data from AllTrails, a website and app offering more than 100,000 trail guides and maps, indicates that trail activity is typically busiest on the weekends during the late morning and early afternoon. The app also features a 'Trails Less Traveled' filter, which can be used to identify trails with less foot traffic, says Dr. Bartlett-Hackenmiller.

Keep in mind: Sharing commodities can mean increased risk. "Equip a backpack with your own water, lunch and other essentials (such as a first aid kit)," she says. "You'll also want to bring sanitizer so you can disinfect after touching any shared handrails and ideally before getting back into your car to reduce the additional transfer of germs."

Cycling: Low Risk

If you're missing your cycling class or looking for a different mode of transportation to soak up the summer weather, experts say cruising on two wheels is generally a safe bet.

Dr. Bartlett-Hackenmiller recommends skipping group rides in favor of riding alone or with your quarantine crew, and wearing a mask whenever possible. "If you find it difficult to wear masks while cycling because they won't stay put or slide down, try a neck gaiter," she suggests. "You can let the gaiter hang around your neck when in remote areas. Just make sure to cover your face when passing others or making any public stops." (Related: How to Find the Best Face Mask for Workouts)

Dr. Chotani points out that higher speeds and inclines often associated with biking can cause more labored, heavy breathing, which can increase the inhalation and exhalation of droplet particles and up the risk of transmission. "Because of this, you'll want to be extra cautious of congested times and bike lanes, and maintain even more than six feet of distance when passing others when possible," he adds.

Keep in mind: Rental bikes tend to be higher touch and therefore higher risk. If you don't have your own bike, "try to rent from companies with robust hygiene and sanitization practices that ideally allow for 24 hours between rentals to minimize the risk of germ transfer," says Dr. Elliott.

Camping: Low Risk

Since typically done outside and in remote spaces, camping is another low-risk (and often low-cost) option for singles and quarantined families or couples.

"Make sure to set up camp away (I recommend 10 feet) from others," says Dr. Nasseri. "If using campground bathrooms, wash hands and bring hand sanitizer to use after touching public door handles. You should also make sure to bring a mask in case you are walking around the grounds, and they are crowded."

Keep in mind: Experts agree that sharing equipment and communal spaces with others increases the risk. "Use your own tent to avoid renting a cabin, especially if there's a chance you might have to share it with people who don't live with you," advises Dr. Chotani. "Bring additional supplies and equipment (such as a bicycle or kayak) with you to minimize exposure."

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Outdoor Group Workouts: Low/Medium Risk

According to our experts, group activities or sports in which you're able to practice social-distancing and avoid face-to-face contact (think: tennis or outdoor yoga) have a relatively moderate risk.

Just as with bike riding, though, the vigor of a particular group workout can come into play. "For example, an intense outdoor boot camp class may cause respiratory droplets to release in greater volumes and travel farther, so I'd recommend keeping a greater distance (upwards of 10 feet) to be safe," says Shawn Nasseri, M.D., an ear, nose, and throat surgeon based in Los Angeles, CA.

Keep in mind: Contact with equipment and players can greatly increase risk. "If sharing a ball or other tool, opt for wearing gloves, and avoid touching your face," says Dr. Elliott. "And remember that gloves are not a replacement for handwashing. They should be removed and discarded if disposable or immediately washed afterward. Also, try to steer clear of talking or shaking hands with others before and after the workout." (Related: Is Wearing Contacts During the Coronavirus Pandemic a Bad Idea?)

Swimming: Low/Medium Risk

If you need to cool off, and you're lucky enough to have a private pool to use, this is your safest bet, according to experts. This means somewhere you can swim alone or with quarantined family members and friends while keeping a safe distance.

Swimming in public pools is considered medium risk, as long as facilities are taking care to properly chlorinate waters and disinfect surrounding areas and social distancing is possible. What about the beach, you ask? "We do not have definitive evidence on whether saltwater kills the virus and the possibility of exposure to the virus in the beach breeze is always present, but the large volume of water and the salt content would make it difficult for transmission to occur," explains Dr. Bishara.

If you plan on attending a public pool or beach, call ahead or check the website to try to get a sense of safety precautions that are being taken and try to go when there are fewer crowds (avoiding weekends and holidays, if possible).

Keep in mind: Whether it's mandated in your area or not, experts advise wearing a mask, especially if the area is heavily populated. Make sure to wear your flip flops everywhere—no quick barefoot trips to the bathroom down the boardwalk—and wipe down the soles of shoes upon returning home to avoid bringing anything indoors. (Related: Can the Coronavirus Spread Through Shoes?)

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Attending a Backyard Gathering: Varying Risk

Eager to test-drive that new grill? The level of risk involved with attending or hosting a picnic or barbecue varies widely and is mostly dependent on how many guests are gathering, the practices of those people, and protocols put in place.

FWIW, these kinds of outdoor gatherings can be low risk with the help of thoughtful preparation, says Dr. Elliott. "Try to stick to small groups of family or others with whom you have been quarantining, and wide (ideally open) spaces, in which you can keep a distance of at least 6 feet," she advises.

"The more people present in closer confinements, the higher the risk, so keep the number to one in which you can adequately maintain the safe distance guidelines noted," adds Dr. Bishara.

Experts stress the importance of wearing a mask, avoiding public barbecue grills, picnic tables, and water fountains, and making sure to sanitize hands and surfaces, especially before and after eating. Dr. Nasseri also recommends removing your shoes before entering someone else's house to use the restroom, for example.

Keep in mind: Sharing of food and utensils can increase the risk of contact and contamination, so experts recommend a BYO or single-serve approach. "Avoid buffet-style setups, instead preparing pre-packaged, single-serve dishes (think: salads, tapas, and sandwiches) that can be served as single portions," says Vandana A. Patel, M.D., F.C.C.P., a clinical advisor for Cabinet, an online personalized pharmacy service. And try to avoid excessive alcohol, which can hinder your ability to take proper precautions, adds Dr. Elliott.

Kayaking: Low/Medium Risk

Kayaking or canoeing by yourself or alongside those with whom you've been quarantining is generally considered low risk. "This is especially true if you use your own equipment or at least wipe down any equipment (such as oars or coolers) with sanitizer and keep a safe distance from other boaters," says Dr. Elliott.

In addition to keeping that distance, you'll want to avoid unpredictable or unfavorable weather and water conditions (such as rain or rapids) that could cause you or those around you to lose control, causing you to require assistance and come in contact with other boaters.

Keep in mind: Experts warn against kayaking with those whom you haven't been quarantining with, especially if you're in a tandem boat, which requires sitting in close proximity for long periods of time. "Remember that sharing public bathrooms or food at docks and rest stations can also increase risk," adds Dr. Elliott.

Contact Sports: High Risk

Sports that involve close, direct, and especially face-to-face contact severely up your risk for coronavirus transmission. "Contact sports, such as basketball, football, and soccer, carry a higher risk due to the number and intensity (heavy breathing) of the contacts, as well as it being difficult to modify behavior," says Dr. Chotani.

Keep in mind: While our experts advise against contact sports at this time as a whole, Dr. Elliott points out that those involving high-touch equipment or conducted indoors are typically worse and, just as with other group sports, congregating in common areas (such as locker rooms) increases the risk.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.

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