Risk of outdoor transmission of COVID-19 small, experts say, but safety measures must be followed

·3 min read
A bicycle police officer patrols Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto last summer. Warm weather has some questioning what activities can be done outdoors safely.  (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press - image credit)
A bicycle police officer patrols Trinity Bellwoods Park in Toronto last summer. Warm weather has some questioning what activities can be done outdoors safely. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press - image credit)

As spring weather takes hold across the city, with temperatures hitting highs of 23 degrees over the weekend, Toronto residents are itching to get outdoors after being hunkered down amid the ongoing third wave of the pandemic.

For those wondering what is considered safe for outdoor activities and what behaviours could increase your risks of COVID transmission, experts have some answers.

The first thing to note is that even with variants, infectious disease physicians in the Greater Toronto Area say the virus has less chance to accumulate and become harmful outdoors.

"I'd rather have 100 people outdoors in a park rather than have 20 people indoors," said Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, an infectious disease specialist with Trillium Health Partners.

Respiratory viruses spread through aerosol droplets that can go from one person to another, Chakrabarti explained in an interview with CBC Toronto.

In an area that has very poor ventilation, such as many indoor spaces, these droplets can accumulate and the amount of virus in these droplets can then reach the point of infecting someone.

"One way to mitigate this is to have increased ventilation, and that's what you see in hospitals and it lessens the chance of there being a strong concentration of particles that can infect you," Chakrabarti said.

He said outside is essentially perfect ventilation.

Outdoor transmission 'exceedingly small,' expert says

Last summer, Toronto officials and Premier Doug Ford slammed crowds who flocked to Trinity Bellwoods Park on a day when the weather was particularly nice, saying it could cause a spike in COVID-19 cases and undo weeks of effort to curb the spread of the virus.

But Chakrabarti says the risk of outdoor transmission is so small, the outrage was unwarranted in regard to its effect on case counts — or lack thereof.

"If you look at it, a month afterwards, there was no increase in COVID transmission. Not to say that there probably wasn't a case or two but the point is it pales in comparison to the types of transmission we see in indoors," he said.

Chakrabarti adds that if you're planning on having a prolonged conversation with someone and you're unable to physically distance outdoors, consider wearing a mask. He also said that avoiding large crowds is another way to mitigate risk.

Infectious disease expert Isaac Bogoch echoed Chakrabarti's statements, saying that if you can safely spread apart from others outside, "the risk of transmission of this infection would be exceedingly small."

Avoid riskier high-contact sports

In December, the Mayo Clinic published a list of lowest-risk outdoor activities, which include running, hiking, rollerblading, biking, fishing, golfing — notably activities that keep you apart from others.

The "mid-risk" category of outdoor activities includes picnics, which experts say can be made safer.

They advise people to keep their distance, to avoid sharing a blanket, and to bring their own food and drinks to avoid sharing, which increases risk.

Low-contact sports like tennis, baseball and soccer, where distance can be maintained, are considered safer than high-contact sports such as basketball and wrestling.

During the third wave of the pandemic fuelled by more transmissible variants, Bogoch advises people to pick sports and activities that keep participants distanced from each other in order to lower the risk.

"No matter how bad wave three is, wherever people are, we still can get through it and there still are activities that you can do safely," he says.

Regardless of the activity, experts say getting outside can help people cope during the pandemic, offering them a much needed mental boost.