Bowling alleys, bars, arcades: Are indoor venues safe as COVID-19 restrictions ease?

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A preview of Stage 3 of Ontario’s reopening plan
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Experts have said the risk of the coronavirus spreading is higher inside, but many indoor recreational activities are beginning to open.

Indoor facilities like bars, arcades, escape rooms, bowling alleys, interactive museum exhibits and pool halls will be reopening on Friday in the majority of Ontario, as the province moves to Stage 3 of its plan to reopen. But in Quebec, the province hardest hit by the virus, bars have already reopened and have been linked to at least 30 COVID-19 cases so far.

Here is what experts have to say about how safe indoor spaces are and what precautions should be taken when venturing out.

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“People are still expected to maintain two metres’ distance,” said Greta Bauer, an epidemiology professor at Western University. “They’re expected to wear masks where that can’t be done. The question is going to really be how that’s operationalized in those spaces.”

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Bauer said creating environments that give the virus opportunities to spread increases the risk of outbreaks.

Gerald Evans, professor and chair of the infectious diseases division of the department of medicine at Queen’s University, said the problem is simple: “Indoor spaces are not as safe as outdoor spaces.”

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“When you’re outdoors, there’s a massive dilutional effect of the atmosphere and there’s winds and breezes that are blowing things around. So the likelihood of respiratory droplets infecting someone is markedly reduced outside as compared with inside,” he said.

Evans said whether or not these spaces will become hotbeds for COVID-19 depends on several variables, including the size of the venue, how well-ventilated it is and what measures are put in place before people are allowed inside.

Bars, karaoke, pool halls

Epidemiologists interviewed by Global News agreed that bars, pool halls and other spots where alcohol is served pose a significant risk.

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“Super-spreader events” in countries like South Korea have clearly been tied to bars and young people, said Evans. In one case, a single individual in their 20s who attended a nightclub after they contracted the virus resulted in a spike of 34 contact cases.

“What we found out in the last two months is that bars are really dangerous. It’s a bad mixture. It’s a return to an environment which is inherently challenging,” Evans said.

“People can’t necessarily wear masks effectively in a bar because you’re drinking. Alcohol impairs your judgment. So you may do things that you shouldn’t do, even though you know that you shouldn’t do it, and there are often small areas with inadequate ventilation.”

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Toronto, called bars “extremely worrisome.”

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“After a couple of drinks, physical distancing gets harder to do and people don’t go to bars so they can stand more than six feet away from other people. Karaoke is even worse because singing means projecting a lot of droplets and no one karaokes to an empty room,” he said.

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“If you’re standing around, there’s a lot of people and they’re not wearing masks and they’re inside, that’s unsafe. Full stop.”


Arcades, while typically a more sober activity among friends, also pose some risks, experts said.

“There’s a lot less ventilation,” said Evans, and young people are not “particularly attuned to” following the rules of “the new normal,” such as physical distancing, mask-wearing and remaining two metres apart.

“An arcade room could be particularly dangerous if people aren’t screened, people aren’t wearing masks, or if it’s a small facility with a lot of people in it. That’s a great, unfortunate way to transmit the virus,” he added.

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Escape rooms

Experts said escape rooms, on the other hand, could provide a safer alternative — provided they’re well maintained and thoroughly cleaned after each use.

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Room scenarios usually host between four and 12 people, many of whom are friends.

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“It’s typically it’s a group of people who know each other who go into that room and then try to solve all the puzzles in order to escape,” said Evans. “That could be intrinsically a little bit safer simply because you’re likely to do it within a circle of individuals who you’ve already deemed to be your social circle.”

Interactive museum exhibits

Interactive museum exhibitions can pose challenges, depending on the level of interaction.

A normal stroll through a museum, where patrons are discouraged from touching the art and artifacts, poses minimal risk, “especially because it’s not a strenuous exercise,” Evans said.

As long as guests wear masks and are properly screened, few problems should arise. The interactive part, however, “is a little bit more difficult.”

Furness noted that museums had been particularly careful to the extent that they’re opening.

“They’re being very careful about limiting the number of people inside,” he said.

He added that the type of experience museums offer, which tends to be less of a party and more of an airy, quiet place to appreciate the arts, may not pose the same risk as indoor activities where sweating and dancing are involved.

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Bowling alleys

Bowling alleys, too, are on the safer end of the spectrum of indoor activities reopening across the country.

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“It’s a fairly large indoor space there, depending on the size of the bowling lane and alleys there,” said Evans. “In that large expanse, with a fair bit of good ventilation and if you’re keeping the numbers down, that’s generally a safer place.”

Bauer said despite this, several questions those attending should ask is how the alleys are setting up operations, what they’re doing with washrooms, how staff are handling food, whether balls are being sanitized and how each lane is being cleaned.

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“Individually, if people want to bring wipes and wipe down spaces, if they want to wear masks, I think that those would be wise things to do in those kinds of shared spaces,” she said. 

Expect case numbers to rise

Whether or not parts of the country are reopening prematurely is up for debate.

“We’re not even sure that it’s safe to open schools in September,” Furness said.

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“If we’re not sure we can send kids back to school, I don’t think we should be opening bars, arcades and escape rooms.”

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But as provinces and territories reopen and the number of interactions between people increases, Bauer said to expect to a rise in COVID-19 cases.

“We will have larger outbreaks just because we’re increasing the number of contacts that people will potentially have had if they do become a case of COVID-19,” she said.

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