All of us want to get outdoors right now. With the advice of a public health and infectious disease expert, here’s how you can do so safely and responsibly.
“This disease is hyper-infectious; we haven’t seen anything like it in recent history,” says Global First Ladies Alliance founder Cora Neumann, who is advising Montana state heath authorities on their handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We need to flatten the curve,” she says. By slowing the rate of infections, we can avoid overwhelming our nation’s healthcare system. The slower the rate at which people become infected and are hospitalized, the lower the fatality rate will be. Doing that requires the participation of every American. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you can spread the disease to others.
That’s why we’re all being told to stay at home and stay at least six feet from other people if we must go out. The trouble is, staying indoors can get really boring, really fast. And, with layoffs and offices closures, many of us are choosing to spend time outdoors. That’s already leading to problems. Los Angeles just closed hiking trails and other outdoor areas due to overcrowding, and many National Parks are closing their gates for the same reason. Many areas of the country are also seeing local parks, beaches, and trails overwhelmed with visitors.
“Your behavior can saves lives,” Neumann emphasizes. Here’s her advice.
Going Outdoors Can Help You Stay Healthy
“All of us need to be taking care of our immune systems,” says Neumann. And exercise, sunlight, and the outdoors have all been shown to help with that.
“Exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system,” according to literature from Harvard Medical School. “It may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.”
A study conducted by Georgetown University Medical Center acknowledges the role sunlight plays in vitamin D production, but also found another surprising benefit: “Sunlight directly activates key immune cells by increasing their movement,” according to one of the researchers. T cells—a type of white blood cell crucial for immune response, were found to be more mobile after test subjects were exposed to sunlight.
And simply spending time outdoors has been associated with a range of health benefits, from lower incidence of diabetes to decreased blood pressure. It may even lower your risk of a heart attack.
Follow Local Rules and Guidance
State, city, and local governments in areas particularly impacted by the pandemic have issued temporary restrictions that may prevent some or all outdoor activity. If these regulations are imposed in your area, it’s vital that you follow them.
Coronaviruses are transmitted in droplets emitted by sneezes and coughs, which may linger on surfaces for hours or days. In hard-hit areas, staying indoors may be the only way to avoid exposure, transmission, or both.
Neumann recommends consulting websites like The Centers for Disease Control, the governor’s office in your state, the mayor’s office in your city, and and your state’s public health office to remain apprised of local guidelines.
One of the reasons national parks are closing is that they were drawing outside visitors into isolated rural communities, and causing people from different areas to intermingle. This behavior risks spreading COVID-19 to communities ill-equipped to handle it, while fostering transmission of the disease across the country.
“Stay within your locale, whatever that may be,” advises Neumann. By staying inside your neighborhood, town, city, or region, you limit the spread of the virus. This is crucial to flattening that curve, and slowing infection rates. The definition of locale will differ depending on where you live. While someone residing in a rural area may be able to travel 20 miles away without leaving their community, someone living in Manhattan probably shouldn’t leave that borough.
“Stay at least six feet away from other people at all times,” Neumann instructs. She goes on to cite overcrowding at trailhead parking lots as an example. It doesn’t matter if you maintain a healthy distance from other people once you’re on the trail if you’re passing close by other people as you get in or out of your car. “At all times,” she emphasizes.
This may mean changing your plans on the fly. If you drive up to a local trailhead and there are other cars and people there, go someplace else. Avoid popular areas like beaches or crowded city parks altogether.
“People don’t understand just how infectious this disease is,” says Neumann. You need to take all possible steps to avoid other people, and even things other people may have come into contact with. Consider public facilities, like basketball or tennis courts, off-limits for the duration of the pandemic. Avoid public exercise equipment like pull up bars. Don’t even think about drinking from a fountain. And “No rock climbing,” warns Neumann, since it involves contact with surfaces and poses a risk of injury.
You may have seen recommendations elsewhere to limit group sizes to fewer than ten people. Neumann has different thinking on that. The point of self quarantining is to remove the opportunity for the disease to infect you, or for you to infect someone else. So instead, she recommends limiting interactions only to those people you know have been isolating themselves for the same period of time, and from the same exposures you have—basically people from your own home.
Neumann also suggests that rural or dirt roads may make better hiking trails than single track, for the simple reason that they make it easier to pass other people at the appropriate distance.
Avoid Dangerous Activities
Hospitals and other health care facilities are already overwhelmed. So, it’s the responsibility of everyone to avoid taxing their resources further. For that reason, it is no longer responsible to participate in risk-prone activities or sports.
“You really don’t want to visit a hospital right now, if you can avoid it,” says Neumann. Hospitals are a hotbed of possible infections at the best of times. Right now, it’s vital that people who don’t need emergency care avoid them in order to limit the spread of the disease both into and out of the facilities.
“Stay home, except for essential services and safe exercise,” cautions Neumann. Limit your time outdoors to hiking, running, or similarly safe activities. The risk of injury and the subsequent impact on limited healthcare resources is one of the reasons France has banned recreational cycling.
Neumann advises washing your hands frequently and using alcohol wipes to disinfect surfaces and anything outside of your home you may need to touch. You already know that. What may be less obvious is that, according to Neumann, you need to take careful steps to avoid bringing the virus into your home. “Be careful to disinfect anything you bring home from a store,” she says, and suggests using disinfectant spray or wipes in order to do so.
Neumann also says you need to be careful to avoid carrying the virus home on your shoes or clothing if you’ve visited a store, pharmacy, or other business that remains open. She recommends leaving your footwear outside, washing your clothes upon return to your house, and disinfecting any parts of your body that may have been exposed to those virus containing droplets. “Your hands, your face, the back of your neck,” she recommends.
“We are all frontline soldiers in this fight,” says Neumann. “Thousands of lives are at risk if we don’t comply.”