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Is it safe to see friends if we stay outside?

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As summer approaches and the COVID-19 pandemic continues, more Canadians are getting restless and craving social interaction.

Some provinces have slowly loosened coronavirus guidelines and have opened parks and outdoor spaces, while others, like Nova Scotia, now allow for “double bubbles” where two households, whether they are friends or family, can socialize with each other if they are “mutually exclusive to each other.”

But Canadians should not see these changes as a reason to abandon physical distancing or other COVID-19 prevention measures, said Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

READ MORE: Teen says inflammatory disorder linked to coronavirus feels like being ‘internally on fire’

The country is not in the clear — especially in provinces like Ontario where 441 new cases of novel coronavirus were reported on Friday, the highest case number reported in the last two weeks.

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“There are safer ways to socialize right now,” Mulligan said. “One of the safest ways to do it is by getting outside where the risk of transmission is quite low.”

Outdoor safer than indoor

Getting outside is important for our mental health, as is socializing. In fact, more than half of Canadians say they feel lonely or isolated during the pandemic.

Mulligan said if you properly maintain physical distance from others outside — meaning you keep at least six feet away — you are at a relatively low risk of contracting COVID-19. Enjoying the outdoors with members of your immediate household is still considered the safest, she said.

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Cities like Toronto have opened up streets on weekends, allowing citizens to enjoy more space outdoors while maintaining physical distancing, Mulligan added.

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“There’s also park space and amenities [opening up], so it is getting easier to be outside together and to enjoy the weather,” she said.

When you can’t keep six feet apart from others, Mulligan said wearing a mask is important. The federal government recently recommended that everyone who can’t maintain a two-metre physical distance wear a non-medical mask.

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While non-medical or cloth masks do not protect wearers as much as surgical or N95 masks (which are needed most in health-care settings), they are still helpful, Mulligan said. It’s also vital people practice handwashing and other good hygiene practices to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

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“It’s important to note that wearing a cloth mask doesn’t give you carte blanche to suddenly start getting close to lots of people,” Mulligan added.

“What it does is it helps reduce the number of droplets that you’re sending into your environment.”

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Not all outdoor activities are created equal

Just because outdoor is safer than indoor socializing doesn’t mean it’s time to have a big backyard BBQ party. You still need to respect physical distancing rules and remember that large gatherings are a no-go.

Catching up with your neighbour outside while maintaining at least six feet distance would be considered relatively low risk, Mulligan said, but running in a packed park with others is riskier.

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“If you’re finding yourself on crowded trails, for example, you might want to rethink being in that situation,” Mulligan said.

Running outdoors is considered safe if distance is kept from others. The same is true for walking. Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News that it is perfectly okay for Canadians to run outside.

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“Breathing in the droplets of others is most likely to happen indoors during close and sustained contact, rather than outside in the wind during fleeting contact that may last for one to two seconds,” he said.

Guidelines across Canada

Where you live in Canada is also a factor in socializing rules, as some cities and provinces are more affected by outbreaks than others, like Ontario and Quebec. Provinces like P.E.I. and New Brunswick have much fewer confirmed cases of COVID-19.

This means when it comes to socializing rules, what makes sense in one region might not in another, health and public policy experts say.

READ MORE: How many Canadians have the new coronavirus? Total number of confirmed cases by region

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the “bubble system” is in place, meaning one household can socialize with another separate household and no others. Gatherings are also restricted to under 10 people in the province.

In Nova Scotia, gatherings are limited to five people, with some exemptions. In Ontario, public outdoor gatherings of five or under are permitted, and Quebec recently announced that a maximum of 10 people from three different households will be allowed to see one another outside as of May 22. The gatherings must be outside and people should still keep two metres apart, Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said.

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Even if rules are loosening a bit, Mulligan said she is “quite concerned” about the number of COVID-19 cases in the country — especially in Ontario.

“In British Columbia, they’re seeing very, very low numbers, but here in Ontario, we’re seeing upwards of 400 new cases every day, and not just in long-term care, but also in the community,” she said.

“We have so little information right now about where those are coming from, what our level of testing is, who’s being affected, and whether we’re able to keep up with contact tracing and case management.

“There are just so many unknowns that I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be taking more risks this week than we were last week.”

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

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.

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