As COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, spreads through the United States and around the world, many parents are finding themselves in the same situation as Jenny Morber. A mother of two from Bainbridge Island, Washington, Morber initially planned to take her kids to Italy for spring break. As Italy shut down in the face of the pandemic, Morber thought traveling domestically might be a smarter choice, so the family changed its plan, deciding to visit Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Parks in Arizona. Now, with public-health experts recommending that people stay home altogether, Morber canceled that trip, too.
Public school districts across the country have been closing, as have private schools, day-care and sports programs, and after-school activities. Spring-break destinations from Disneyland to Colorado ski resorts recently shut down. So have lots of local hangouts like museums, libraries, recreation centers, and restaurants. Some states, including Washington, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and California, have banned big events outright (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends canceling or postponing gatherings larger than 50 people). This week in the San Francisco Bay Area, a “shelter in place” mandate across six counties asked people to stay home and to maintain six feet of distance between themselves and others if they had to make a trip outside.
These sweeping disruptions to daily life in the United States present a challenge for parents, though COVID-19 doesn’t pose an extreme risk to children, as far as we know. No one under the age of ten appears to have died from the disease. For whatever reason, symptoms are generally milder in kids than in adults and seniors. (Research is ongoing, and one new study found that preschoolers and babies can get serious infections, too.)
Still, asymptomatic people can spread COVID-19 to others. Even if you’re not too worried about coronavirus affecting your child’s long-term health or your own, precautions will help slow the disease’s spread. Officials say that the actions of young, healthy people will save the lives of elderly and immunocompromised people and reduce the anticipated burden the virus will put on the health care system.
That’s why Morber is opting to do day hikes near her home and visit local, uncrowded public lands. “Honestly, I think it is the parks that will save us,” she says.
I’ve heard from numerous other people, both parents and not, who are doing their best to preserve their sanity by going for bike rides, runs, or walks in places where they can remain separate from other people. So I wanted to know: Is this a good idea? Is it still safe take your kids for a stroll or to play outside?
Dr. Emma Kate Loveday, a virologist at Montana State University, says that if you are not sick and have access to uncrowded public lands or outdoor environments, those are generally safe places to be during the ongoing pandemic. “If you’re in a position to go camping or be outdoors, don’t be afraid to take advantage of that,” she told me. In outdoor areas, you can often maintain the recommended safe distance of six feet from others, and in the open air, tiny airborne cough and sneeze droplets are less likely to be transmitted than in buildings with recirculated air.
Where and how is it safe to spend time outdoors with your family? First, for now, avoid big-name national parks. Although they’re remaining open, destinations like Yellowstone or Zion are often crowded or require interstate travel. Plus, the small, rural communities that act as gateways to these parks may not have the health care facilities to cope with the outbreak, so it’s best to stay away.
Instead, check out underappreciated gems that are quieter and closer to home, including national forests and grasslands, Bureau of Land Management property, state and city parks, certain under-the-radar national monuments, greenways, beaches, trails, even little patches of woods. If your local standbys seem unusually busy with people, you can research lesser known options by looking at USGS topographic maps or by downloading the OnXmaps app ($14.99 per year for one state, with free trials available), which provides digital maps that are clearly marked. You can also find kid-friendly trails through Hike It Baby, a nonprofit that offers a list of family-approved hikes organized by region on its website as well as additional resources and information about getting outside with your kids.
If your travel plans changed at the last minute and you don’t have the gear for impromptu outings, an outdoor-experience company called Arrive rents quality equipment for people without the space or finances for their own. Rachelle Snyder, Arrive’s chief executive officer, says the company currently requires bookings at least one week before your delivery date, but they’re dropping that to four days on April 1. All of its gear is currently being sanitized with CDC-recommended disinfectants, too: when one of its rental down jackets is washed, for example, Arrive adds a disinfectant to its regular detergent.
And while public lands may be safe compared to many indoor spaces, you still need to take precautions. Bathrooms and visitor centers act as human bottlenecks, and it’s imperative that you wash your hands thoroughly when passing through them. Even when you’re outside, maintain the recommended distance from other people—and make sure your kids do, too.
If you or your kids are feeling unwell, it’s best to stay home entirely. “I know it’s hard to stay inside with young children, but if your kids are sick, don’t take them somewhere just because they’re driving you crazy,” Loveday says. (If you end up quarantined or sick at home with your kids, here’s a list of free educational resources, and here’s a roundup of free games to play when your own imagination starts to lag.)
The coronavirus pandemic is a swiftly evolving situation, so one final piece of advice: before you walk out the door, double-check official local and state websites for the latest recommendations, closures, or travel restrictions. Some states have announced restrictions on overnight camping on public land, and others may close altogether. But for now, wash your hands, put on your boots, stay a safe distance from others, and go play outside.