Playgrounds in many Canadian communities that have been closed off since the novel coronavirus first arrived in Canada can and should be safely reopened, experts say.
Across Canada, there is a patchwork of closed and open playgrounds. Calgary and Vancouver, for example, opened theirs in late May and early June, and Nova Scotia followed in mid-June.
Slides and swings are still taped off in some large Ontario cities, though. Some areas of the province will be allowed to open playgrounds in Phase 3 of the province’s reopening, along with bars. However, places like Toronto and York Region, which will stay in Phase 2 for now, have a combined population of 8.2 million, or more than half of the population of the province.
But all of them could open now with minimal danger, argues the University of Toronto’s Colin Furness.
“We have to take into account the fact that this is outside, which is a safer place to be,” he says. “A playground that’s in the hot summer sun is not going to harbour a lot of live virus on its surfaces.”
Ashleigh Tuite, also with the University of Toronto, agrees.
“I think that in the spectrum of risky things to do at this point, I would be pretty comfortable with reopening playgrounds.”
There are two issues, Furness says: virus that may be left on play structures, which doesn’t live long in warm weather, and the fact that excited small children are hard to keep away from each other.
Closing playgrounds may have made more sense in the spring when weather was colder and may make sense again next winter but can’t be justified now, he says.
“In March, coronavirus in the freezing cold weather will live on a playground structure possibly indefinitely,” he says. “We know that live Spanish flu was taken off a frozen corpse in 1992. Viruses do pretty well when they’re frozen.
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“When there was a spectre of uncontrolled community spread and the weather was cold outside, playgrounds terrified me. Next February, if we have uncontrolled community spread, playgrounds will terrify me again.”
Some experts now doubt it’s possible to get the novel coronavirus from surfaces or call it unlikely; the greatest danger is from droplets in indoor spaces.
Experiments showed that the virus can linger on surfaces, but that was in very artificial lab conditions, says McMaster University infectious disease expert Zain Chagla.
“The reality is that those are experimental models that are done in optimal humidity, they’re done in optimal temperatures, they’re done in indoor environments, they’re done with mechanics to seed the environment that are very different from what could be generated from a human being,” he says.
As well, sunlight seems to kill the virus quickly, Tuite explains.
“Sunlight and UV light actually damages the virus, and that’s part of it,” she says. “We know that sunlight is good in terms of killing the virus — the virus that’s on these surfaces is unlikely to live for a long amount of time.”
Parents have a role in keeping kids spread out and not crowded, Furness says.
“At some point, we need to trust parents to take care of their kids. We’re not inside everyone’s house, we can’t actually enforce everything, we shouldn’t look at it that way,” he explains.
In the meantime, cooped-up children need to blow off steam and do something that doesn’t involve an iPad.
“From a mental health standpoint, kids need to be run. They need some exercise. They need to be able to do things that seem fun to them,” he says.
“If we can get kids outside and moving, off their butts, off the screens, this is a good thing.”
As well, Tuite points out, kids who can’t use outdoor playgrounds because they are closed may end up inside, where the danger of infection is higher.
“If the alternative is a playdate indoors, having kids outdoors, even if they’re a bit closer than one would want them to be, it’s probably more ideal than having the same sort of interaction indoors,” she says.
Kids in playgrounds probably won’t keep a two-metre distance from each other, but that may not matter, Tuite says — apart from anything else, they seem not to spread droplets as far as adults do, being smaller.
“There are things that people can do to minimize that risk, recognizing that kids are not necessarily going to adhere to the strict social distancing, but making sure that a playground is not overcrowded. If it’s full of kids you might not want to go there if you’re worried about too much contact between individuals.”
Questions to Ontario Premier Doug Ford‘s office about the issue were not answered.
“There is no reason why they should be closed,” Chagla says. “The best evidence is that outdoor ventilated settings are pretty low-risk.”