As the weather gets warmer, parks are once again becoming bustling hubs of social activity. With the highly contagious COVID-19 variants in the fold, how safe is it to meet people from outside your bubble outdoors? We asked two scientists for their expert opinions.
“Especially with the variants, if you have the choice between gathering indoor versus outdoor, definitely, outdoor is a much better bet,” said Prof. Benoit Barbeau, a virology expert at the Université du Quebec à Montréal.
Dr. Amesh Adalja of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security in Baltimore, agrees outdoor activities are a safer way to protect yourself from the variants.
“In general, activities that are performed outdoors are much less risky than indoors. I think it’s a way to allow people to get together and kind of reduce the harm that the virus causes while also reducing the harm that social isolation is causing for some people,” he explained.
“The virus, including the variants, transmits less efficiently outdoors. I think the variants tell you that you still need to be careful, that you still need to think about wearing a mask and being six feet apart.”
Outdoor gatherings do still carry risk.
“With these variants around, the possibility that you’ll get infected is higher than what it used to be,” compared to last year, said Barbeau.
He said even a long walk with a contagious person could spread a variant, and recommends distancing even more than two meters.
“If you decide to go for a walk, try even perhaps to further your distance, that would be helpful,” he said.
On her way to spend time with friends at Mount-Royal Park, Elizabeth Rousseau said she was gathering with people she trusts.
“They’re very prudent friends that I trust, and I’m sure that we won’t hug,” she said. “There’s also wind today, and we won’t be together too long. You know, we’re all doing this type of math inside our head.”
Gatherings at homes, either indoor or outdoor, is still prohibited in Quebec’s COVID-19 red zones.
The Quebec government website says “sports and recreational activities” are allowed in outdoor public spaces in red zones with up to eight people from different addresses, and a Health Ministry spokesperson confirmed to Global News that simply hanging out with friends is included.
“We ask Quebecers to exercise good judgment in respecting measures during outdoor activities. Police have discretionary powers,” said Marie-Claude Lacasse.
With variants around, such gatherings are concerning to Barbeau.
“The simple message that needs to be sent is avoid any type of gathering, outdoor or indoor,” he said.
Adalja says people should choose for themselves.
“Each person has a different risk tolerance, and I think that’s something that’s been ignored a lot throughout this pandemic, where we’ve taken kind of an abstinence-only approach in many countries. That actually makes people want to gather kind of clandestinely or behind closed doors,” he said.
Adalja said if a participant in a gathering has even one dose of a vaccine, the risk declines dramatically.
“The solution is at hand in Canada. All you have to do is vaccinate more and then these questions kind of evaporate,” he said.
He said if all parties of a gathering are vaccinated, no social distancing of any kind should be required.