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Itching to get outdoors? Beaches, boardwalks and parks are not a good bet


The sun is shining, the weather is getting warmer, and Canadians cooped up because of the COVID-19 outbreak may be itching to start enjoying the outdoors.

Infectious disease specialists say that's fine to do, but they're still asking people to use common sense in choosing their destinations.

That means crowded parks, boardwalks and beaches are a no-go, at least for now.

"I know the days will start to get nice and it'll be tempting to get out, but just recognize that right now we're still in a critical period," said Natasha Salt, the Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital. 

"People may acquire COVID-19 and be mildly symptomatic — which is the reason for it to quickly spread to others — and then we would continue to see an escalation of cases.

"So it's still important to get out but just maintaining that separation and distance is also equally important."

Photos over the weekend showed Canadians neglecting that advice, as warm weather caused a swarm of Vancouver residents to crowd beaches and boardwalk areas, walking near each other and picnicking in proximity.

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based at Toronto General Hospital, said he was disappointed to see that.

"There's a few things but first, that's inappropriate," Bogoch said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "I just hope it's not reflective of what's happening throughout Canada.

"It's OK to go for a walk, but go for a walk by yourself. ... That's obviously not what we saw in the pictures (from Vancouver)."

Bogoch said the guidelines from Canada's public health leadership have been clear from the outset of the pandemic weeks ago, and maintaining social distance has been one of the most important.

So there isn't an excuse for not following those rules, he said.

"We know we're supposed to keep to ourselves, we know we're not supposed to gather together in groups, right? Pretty clear," Bogoch added. "We've heard it from just about every senior health leader at the federal level, at the provincial level and at the municipal level.

"If we abide by the guidelines, we'll get through this with fewer bumps and bruises."

Dr. Andrea Boggild, another infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Toronto, said seeing images of crowded parks over the last few days was "certainly frustrating."

"As responsible citizens, we all have to be mindful that there is a lot at stake if we fail to comply with our public health authorities' recommendations for social distancing," she said. "Remember, the best way to avoid illness with COVID-19 is to avoid exposure in the first place, and social distancing is one such pillar of that prevention."

Bogoch said people venturing outdoors should be especially wary of potential high-contact surfaces — park benches, railings — anything that could transfer the virus from a sick person to a healthy one.

He said COVID-19 can stick to surfaces from "a couple hours to a couple days" but tends to "stay viable" on metals and plastics longer than it does on paper. Environmental factors like ultraviolet rays and heat can also affect the viability of the virus.

"I think we should just assume that high-contact surfaces are potential surfaces that the virus could be on," Bogoch said. "And that's why we have to have good hand hygiene."

Boggild cautioned against using picnic tables, playgrounds and even sports courts, characterizing all of them as "high-touch areas."

Kevin Coombs, an infectious disease specialist and professor in the department of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, said COVID-19 can also stick "fairly well" to clothing, and conceivably to hair also.

The "infectivity" of the coronavirus doesn't last long on those surfaces, however. It's also not that likely to land on clothing or hair in the first place.

"That would require that someone either directly coughed on you or coughed on a surface that you touched and then applied to yourself," Coombs said.

Still, he stressed the importance of maintaining distance outdoors to minimize risk.

Coombs credited one of the research doctors he works with in for putting it succinctly: it's the people who are the "germ-carriers."

"If you can avoid people, which is basically what the social distancing is all about, then that's the thing to do," Coombs said.

"So, I would say definitely go out and get fresh air, carry out most of the normal things you do, but be cautious and respectful of social distancing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2020.

Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press