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You’re less likely to catch coronavirus outdoors — so why are parks closed?

B.C.’s top doctor says outdoor transmission of COVID-19 is ‘infinitesimally small’
Speaking to reporters at her daily COVID-19 briefing, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says transmission risk of the disease is "much less outside," as long as people are keeping proper physical distance from others.

Experts are urging local governments to lift many restrictions on park use, as more and more evidence suggests that people rarely catch the novel coronavirus while outdoors.

“If we look at where the really awful things have happened: on ships, in nursing homes and in meatpacking plants, it’s all about enclosed spaces,” said Dr. Stan Houston, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of Alberta.

“I am not aware of any outbreaks that have occurred that have been centred in parks, or cross-country ski trails or outdoor environments of any kind.”

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Several cities across Canada have shut down playground structures and park facilities like tennis courts and benches, or have imposed “walk-through” measures, in which residents can pass through a park but can’t linger on the grass.

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Breaking these measures can bring legal consequences: a man in Ottawa received an $800 fine for standing in the wrong place while walking his dog, for example. An Oakville man was fined $880 for rollerblading with his sons in an empty park.

These measures were designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but experts aren’t so sure they’re warranted anymore.

READ MORE: Harsh fines and policing don’t protect people from COVID-19, criminologists say

At the beginning of the outbreak, public health authorities needed to make sure people adhered to physical distancing measures, said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto General Hospital. Now, he says, “everyone in Canada knows what physical distancing is.”

“I think it would be completely acceptable, and in fact, encouraged to open public spaces as long as people are adhering to physical distancing measures.”

According to emerging research, most cases of COVID-19 seem to arise from prolonged contact with an infected individual.

A recent study from China, published before peer-review, examined 1,245 confirmed cases and found that the vast majority of outbreaks were transmitted between people in a household. Cases acquired on transportation accounted for the second-highest number of outbreaks. Only a single cluster of cases appeared to have spread between people in close contact in an outdoor setting.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Is it risky to hang out with friends in a park?
Coronavirus outbreak: Is it risky to hang out with friends in a park?

Another peer-reviewed study in the Lancet medical journal found that household contacts and those travelling with an infected person were at highest risk of acquiring the infection themselves.

Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, looking at people in Iceland, found that most people got the virus through family members and at work, though there were a high number of cases of unknown origin.

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“It’s pretty clear now that there’s a lot of data demonstrating that you need to have close contact with an infectious individual,” Bogoch said. “A lot of that close contact is likely from either touching that person or being in the same household as that person or perhaps working very closely with that person. And many of those are in indoor settings.

“The risk of getting this infection standing two metres apart in a public park is close to nothing.”

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Air currents, sunlight and just the fact that there is so much air to “dilute” the virus in an outdoor setting all mean that it’s much harder for a virus to transmit outside, Houston said. “The thing we could be clearest about and we know most about is almost nothing is transmitted efficiently out of doors.”

Coronavirus outbreak: Nova Scotia opens parks, trails, and community gardens starting Friday
Coronavirus outbreak: Nova Scotia opens parks, trails, and community gardens starting Friday

B.C.’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry agrees that risks are lower outside. Speaking to reporters last week, she noted that most cases appeared to be from “close contact over time with people in an enclosed environment, having dinner, having meetings, living with somebody. And even in those situations, we don’t see 100 per cent of people getting infected.”

The risk of catching the virus from someone briefly passing by is “infinitesimally small,” she said. “The risk that someone who is sick is spreading this virus from coughing or sneezing outside, and you walk by them very quickly, even if it is within six feet, that risk is negligible.”

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READ MORE: Coronavirus — Is it risky to hang out with friends in a park in Montreal?

However, she and other health experts believe that it is still wise to maintain a two-metre distance from others while outside.

This is the catch: in a small, crowded urban park, it may be difficult to maintain a two-metre separation from your neighbour.

Although she acknowledges that transmission risk is highest when there is prolonged contact, “crowded settings, whether indoors or outdoors, make it difficult to maintain physical distancing and can result in the spread of COVID-19,” said Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health for Toronto.

Toronto’s High Park now closed for cherry blossom season
Toronto’s High Park now closed for cherry blossom season

This is why, officials say, the City of Toronto has placed restrictions on park use — including closing High Park, a large urban park, while cherry trees are blooming — even though the trees are only in a portion of the park.

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“Every year, tens of thousands of people visit High Park to view the blossoming cherry blossoms. Based on the recommendations of the medical officer of health to stop the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, the City made the decision to close High Park during the peak bloom period because maintaining proper physical distancing of park-goers would not be possible,” a city spokesperson said.

Similarly, city officials say that people had been congregating in parks and residents had expressed concerns.

Closing parks where it’s easy to maintain space, like on cross-country trails near Edmonton, is “dumb,” Houston said, but he is generally supportive of people maintaining a two-metre distance even while outside, even if he thinks the risks of catching the virus outdoors are always lower than inside.

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One area where the experts do seem to agree is that shared amenities, like playground equipment, should remain off-limits. “I would keep those play structures closed for the time being,” Bogoch said. “There’s a lot of different hands from a lot of different people touching those same surfaces.”

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Otherwise, Bogoch says officials should try to open up parks sooner rather than later or risk losing broader public support for health measures. “I think it’s important that they do this quickly so that you maintain the public trust, because I think everyone really knows that it’s pretty reasonable to be out and about right now,” he said.

Houston says public health interventions should focus elsewhere.

“People are making a lot of sacrifices. We’ve got to focus on the things that network or most likely work and not restrict people’s lives unnecessarily.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

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Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.