Folks were finally able to take in some warm summer weather at Main Beach in Cultus Lake Park on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Folks were finally able to take in some warm summer weather at Main Beach in Cultus Lake Park on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

As weather warms, better messaging needed around low outdoor COVID risk: experts

The message? If you’re going to socialize, take it outside

Images of friends sitting spaced out on a backyard patio table, or chatting on opposite ends of a park bench are part of a new COVID-19 ad campaign from Britain’s National Health Service.

The message? If you’re going to socialize, take it outside.

As warm spring weather begins to envelop the Canadian provinces, experts here say it’s time to embrace similar rhetoric.

While they stress that no gathering is without risk entirely when it comes to COVID-19, dangers of transmission decrease considerably in outdoor environments.

Nice weekend weather tends to precipitate the same type of posts on social media from people sharing photos — mostly of younger populations — seemingly crowding parks, beaches and boardwalks, with captions and comments lambasting them for doing so.

Dr. Kwadwo Kyeremanteng, a critical care and palliative physician in Ottawa, says online shaming is not only unhelpful, but dangerous.

“What’s the repercussions for a 21-year-old that’s being shamed for being outside with friends and abiding by public health recommendations?” he said. “I would way rather see that than them (gathering) inside to avoid being shamed and ridiculed.”

Kyerementang says public health guidance could benefit from shifting to a “harm reduction” focus that promotes safe alternatives to risky behaviour. That, he says, would allow people to “still be human beings,” and maintain social connections that can improve mental health.

After a year of varying pandemic restrictions and open-and-close lockdown periods, he says people are struggling to understand what’s allowed and what isn’t.

Some are also dealing with conflicting emotions of fear and hope at this stage of the pandemic, says Hilary Bergsieker, an associate psychology professor at the University of Waterloo.

While the effectiveness of COVID vaccines has brought some relief, the looming threat of further lockdowns as a third wave gathers steam in parts of the country means some could be in for a tough spring mentally.

“The stay-home, save-lives, nobody-do-anything phase, that’s not a proven public policy strategy,” Bergsieker said, likening pandemic guidance to sexual health discussions where abstinence-only messaging often falls flat.

“You can’t just tell people to completely abstain from everything that they enjoy.”

Bergsieker says the relatively low risk of outdoor transmission can allow for a “more realistic approach” to policy guidance that gives people some freedom to socialize in safer ways. But she adds, public health needs to be clear on levels of risk associated with certain activities.

“What we need to be thinking about at this point is harm reduction, not harm elimination,” she said.

And if lower-risk outdoor socializing replaces higher-risk indoor gatherings, that’s a win, says Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease expert with McMaster University.

“People think any risk is something we don’t need to (take on). … But those discussions detract from the harm-reduction part of the outdoors,” he said.

“We’re looking at potentially one or two cases that may come out of thousands of outdoor interactions, when we should (be looking at) the type of indoor interactions that are prevented by people getting outdoors.”

While more contagious variants of the COVID virus, which are making up an increasing number of new cases across the country, have led some to wonder if outdoor interactions are more risky now, experts say the chance of spread is still low outside.

That’s not to say we should throw caution completely to the wind however, says Dr. Ilan Schwartz, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Alberta.

Physical distancing and masking, in some cases, should still be practised outdoors, he said.

Chagla says masks can be helpful during outdoor protests, for example, when people are close together and shouting. But they’re likely not necessary when passing by someone on a sidewalk.

That doesn’t change whether we’re dealing with variant forms of the virus or not, Schwartz says.

“We don’t have any evidence that there’s any different physical properties of the variants that are going to allow the virus particles to traverse greater distances,” he said.

“As long as people are are following the public health guidance — not congregating too closely in too large of a group — there really is exceptionally low risk of outdoor transmission.”

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Some bystanders with fire extinguishers helped keep the fire under control. Photo courtesy Suzie Thomas
Bystanders keep fire from spreading near McIvor Lake turnoff

‘Just be vigilant and careful,’ says Campbell River fire chief

The Pier Street Farmers Market will once again take up residence on Sundays from May to Septmber at the parking lot across from the Community Centre in downtown Campbell River for 2021. Mirror File Photo
Pier Street Farmers Market returns to Cedar Street parking lot for 2021

…and it’s hoped that the addition of artisans this year will make it even better

Some recommendations from the Downtown Safety Select Committee have been approved by Campbell River City Council, including removing the glass stage covering at Spirit Square. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Council going ahead with removing Spirit Square stage covering

But mayor acknowledges need for ‘welcoming, warm place with support services’

A small fire on North Rendezvous Island is the first wildfire of the season in the Campbell River area. Officials are asking people to take caution when burning during these dry conditions. BC Wildfire Dashboard
‘Conditions are tricky at the moment’ warns Coastal Fire Centre

Small fire on North Rendezvous Island first of the season for Campbell River area

Vancouver resident Beryl Pye was witness to a “concerning,” spontaneous dance party that spread throughout social groups at Kitsilano Beach on April 16. (Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for current COVID-19 public health orders,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

A syringe is loaded with COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic run by Vancouver Coastal Health, in Richmond, B.C., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. to open up COVID vaccine registration to all B.C. residents 18+ in April

Registration does not equate to being able to book an appointment

Pat Kauwell, a semi-retired construction manager, lives in his fifth-wheel trailer on Maxey Road because that’s what he can afford on his pension, but a Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw prohibits using RVs as permanent dwellings, leaving Kauwell and others like him with few affordable housing options. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)
Rules against RV living hard on Island residents caught in housing crunch

Regional District of Nanaimo bylaw forcing pensioner to move RV he calls home off private farm land

(Black Press file photo).
Multiple stabbings at Vancouver Island bush party

Three youths hospitalized after an assault in Comox

Selina Robinson is shown in Coquitlam, B.C., on Friday November 17, 2017. British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. finance minister to table historic pandemic-challenged deficit budget

Budget aims to take care of people during pandemic while preparing for post-COVID-19 recovery, Robinson said

Each spring, the Okanagan Fest-of-Ale is held in Penticton. This year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will not be held. However, beer is still available. How much do you know about this beverage? (pxfuel.com)
QUIZ: How much do you really know about beer?

Put your knowledge to the test with this short quiz

Lord Tweedsmuir’s Tremmel States-Jones jumps a player and the goal line to score a touchdown against the Kelowna Owls in 2019. The face of high school football, along with a majority of other high school sports, could significantly change if a new governance proposal is passed at the B.C. School Sports AGM May 1. (Malin Jordan)
Power struggle: New governance model proposed for B.C. high school sports

Most commissions are against the new model, but B.C. School Sports (BCSS) and its board is in favour

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

Most Read