As the pandemic stretches on and winter approaches, you may be wondering if there are safe ways to get outside and see other people, in person, without risking transmission. How safe is it for two friends to meet at the park—even while observing physical distancing?
As long as people stay 1.5 metres away from each other, would this be a safe way to gather? How does it compare to physical distancing in an indoor location?
As with so many aspects of pandemic life, there are still so many unanswered questions. We still have no idea how risky an outdoor physical distancing meetup might be. However, as long as all of the rules of physical distancing and safe hygiene are practiced, meeting outdoors may be a safe option.
“Meeting outside can make some sense,” says S. Wesley Long, medical director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist Hospital.
Sunlight not shown to be a disinfectant
As with everything pandemic-related, this comes with a number of caveats, the first being that, contrary to popular belief, outdoor gatherings are not currently understood to be a safer option due to the presence of sunlight.
Although there has been a lot of talk about UV light killing the virus, we don’t know enough for certain—and there’s a big difference between sunlight outdoors and a UV lamp in a lab, both in terms of intensity as well as wavelength.
Thinking the sunlight will act as a disinfectant is a dangerous assumption. But there are other reasons why an outdoor meet-up might make sense.
Meeting outdoors reduces risk of encountering contaminated surfaces
Meeting outdoors means reducing the number of high-contact surfaces you will encounter even as it provides you extra space to practice safe physical distancing.
As Long points out, “People’s homes are contaminated with all of the germs and microbiota of the household members.” That means every high contact surface—remotes, doorknobs, dishes, countertops, anything and everything you touch—runs the risk of being contaminated and must be scrubbed and sanitised immediately before anyone enters your home. (And let’s be real—decontaminating everything in a home is a lot of work, and it can be undone by a single person opening a door or touching the counter.)
On top of all that, “you are [still] contaminating that environment with your own germs and microbiota,” Long says.
Meeting at a park or in a backyard means you don’t have to touch any doorknobs or other surfaces in a house, and again, there will be more room to maintain a distance of 1.5 metres.
If you decide to have a meet up in an outdoor area, what are some considerations to take into account in order to be as safe as possible?
All the usual rules apply
All the rules about avoiding touching high-contact surfaces, sanitising your hands frequently and maintaining a 1.5 metre distance from others. Also, if anyone is showing any symptoms or has a household member who is sick, they should stay home.
Consider your location
When it comes to an outdoor meetup, it’s important to consider your location. If you live in a city or town that is seeing an increase in cases, you might want to reconsider.
“Everyone needs to pay attention to what their local situation is,” Long says. It’s all too easy to focus on national or state level information, which can sometimes hide what is happening within your own community.
You’ll also want to make sure your outdoor gathering is in a place that will allow you to maintain proper distance. This means no crowded parks and no cramped patios. Six feet means six feet.
You’ll want to bring your own food and drinks as well as your own picnic blanket or lawn chairs. You’ll also want to bring along some disinfectant and hand sanitizer, just in case.
“BYO everything,” Long says. “You don’t want people to be sharing food, sharing drink or sharing utensils.”
Establish ground rules beforehand
Before you plan any meet up, establish the ground rules for what you’ll do if anyone you’re meeting refuses to observe a distance of six feet or wants to hug or shake hands.
“Everyone has to be on board with the [rules] ahead of time,” Long says.
If everyone hasn’t agreed to all of the necessary safety precautions, you should not be meeting, and you need to figure that out before even planning a meetup. No exceptions.
Keep meetings short and small
The longer your meet up continues, the more likely people are to forget about maintaining a distance of 1.5 metres or touch something that might be contaminated. There’s also the very real consideration that, if you are there long enough, you’ll need to use the bathroom, and using public restrooms is a big no-no right now.
You’ll also want to limit the size of your meetup, as inviting too many people increases the risk of someone forgetting the rules or there not being enough space to practice safe physical distancing.
If you decide to host an outdoor gathering, plan wisely and make sure to consider all of the recommended precautions. If everything lines up, pack a picnic basket, some lawn chairs and enjoy your physical distancing meet up.