- Beaches around the country are opening for Memorial Day weekend, many with restrictions intended to keep the risk of coronavirus transmission low.
- Beach-goers should take comfort in knowing that being outside is, in general, safer than indoors, and that water is an especially unlikely source of coronavirus transmission.
- To stay as safe as possible, don’t linger around people you don’t live with, wear a mask if you might come close, and avoid public restrooms and sharing food.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Dawn Miskell has never yelled so much in her life.
Between homeschooling her kindergartner and third-grader, rarely leaving the house, and hardly connecting with her husband, who works in the increasingly essential air-conditioning and heating business, it’s all the stay-at-home-mum in Frederick, Maryland, can do.
The fact that she does makes it all the worse.
“I feel overwhelmed by it all and don’t feel like I am doing anything well,” Miskell told Business Insider. “There are days when I lose my patience and we all cry.”
But there was a light: The family had planned on spending much of the summer at their “happy place,” a relative’s beach condo in Ocean City, Maryland, as they always do. But now, although the beach is open, they’re not sure they will make it if the scene there appears to be unsafe.
“I just feel like something has to give,” Miskell said.
As jurisdictions around the country open up beaches ahead of or for Memorial Day weekend, families like Miskell’s are wondering whether the benefits of beach time – the smell of ocean air, the space for kids to frolic, a very needed change of scenery – are worth the risks.
After all, many of us are scarred by images of reckless spring breakers throwing caution to the wind in March, saying “YOLO: You only live once.”
But fortunately, although you can never completely eliminate risk, the science points to the outdoors and the water being especially safe places to enjoy this summer, and critical to mental health – if you take basic precautions.
Different jurisdictions have different rules, some safer than others
Whether indoor or out, the most important way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes, is to avoid close, prolonged contact with unmasked people you don’t live with.
“What you do becomes the single most important thing, less so the environment,” William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, previously told Business Insider.
Wear a mask if there’s a chance you’ll linger around strangers, opt for active pursuits like walking over passive ones like sunbathing, and try to keep your visit short enough to avoid needing to use a public restroom.
If a parking lot or beach webcam looks packed, use your best judgment if it’s best to save your visit for a cloudy day.
Of course, some beaches make following such precautions easier than others. In Tampa, Florida, where beaches are open, for instance, Anika Nayak has avoided exercising along the shore because the beaches look no different than during summers before the term “social distancing” existed.
In Wildwood Crest, New Jersey, Samantha Costa’s parents – retired essential workers who moved a few years ago to be in walking distance to the beach – are avoiding even the local grocery store due to the influx of beach-going non-residents.
On the other hand, some Spanish beaches have installed roped-off grids to support physical distancing between sunbathers, and others are limiting capacity by allowing people to book morning or afternoon sessions through an app.
Other beaches, including some in France and others in California, are open for “active use,” such as surfing, swimming, and running, but not lounging.
In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio recently announced city beaches will open for nearby residents to walk or run. City dwellers are discouraged from travelling to the beaches, and no one is allowed to swim. “If we start to see a lot of violation of those rules, up will come the fences closing off those beaches,” he said.
If the beaches aren’t overcrowded, it’s highly unlikely you will catch the coronavirus from a passer-by
From a scientific perspective, the risk of spreading or contracting coronavirus outside is quite low, even if you come within 6 feet of someone else for a moment.
Vox’s Sigal Samuel wrote “a perfect sequence of events” would have to occur for someone to catch COVID-19 from a passing runner, walker, or cyclist. A fellow swimmer or surfer might apply, too.
You’d need enough particles to jettison out of someone else’s mouth or nose to survive the elements and land in your respiratory tract (or on your hands before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth). Even then, the particles would need to sneak past your nose hairs and mucus and “dock up with your cells’ ACE-2 receptors and use them to enter the cells,” Samuel wrote.
That would take a lot of terrible luck to get someone sick simply walking by each other on the beach. If both parties are wearing masks, it would be more like a freak accident.
Still, Shaffner recommends being very careful when in or near gatherings of people of any size, and “when in doubt, don’t be stubborn and wear a mask.”
Water is a highly unlikely route of transmission
Despite Mayor De Blasio’s ban on swimming, staying out of the water is not an effective way to protect yourself from the coronavirus.
In fact, the water adds an even safer element to potential beach openings: Coronaviruses aren’t stable in water, and there’s no evidence this one is different.
That seems to be in part due to the fact that water dilutes the spit droplets that can transmit the disease, Dr. Leonard A. Mermel, a professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, said during an Infectious Diseases Society of America seminar May 19.
Plus, because the coronavirus is a respiratory, not water-borne disease, catching it involves inhaling it, not swallowing it, Joseph Eisenberg, chair of the epidemiology department at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, told Business Insider.
And, although coronavirus RNA has been found in faeces, which could theoretically spread through water if you accidentally get some in your mouth, the virus in faeces “doesn’t appear to be in an infective state,” Krista Wigginton, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, told Insider.
While there’s a chance the virus could be spread in places where ocean water mixes with untreated wastewater, “the bigger risk from all of these activities would be from interacting with others who are talking, coughing, or sneezing nearby,” Wigginton said.
Not everybody can or should go to the beach, but they should get outside
Not everyone can get to a beach safely or will be welcomed at one. Travelling via packed subway to the Rockaways in New York, for instance, is a decent risk in itself, hence De Blasio’s restriction to residents only.
Heeding such recommendations are important, even though it means spending a sweaty summer in a city centre. The WHO just reported its highest single-day case-load this week and with talk of a second wave looming, officials want to be cautious.
“As we COVID-19 case counts continue to decrease, we should slowly and strategically begin to open up the economy while maintaining low levels of transmission,” Eisenberg said. “Moving too quickly risks the resurgence of cases, moving too slowly risks the continued downturn in the economy. Both have economic and public health costs. There’s no such thing as zero risk; our goal is to minimise risk.”
But even if you can’t get to a beach or decide it’s safer to stay close to home, make a point to get outside: Research has extensively linked time outside with lower depression, less stress, and better mental health and well-being. It’s also good for your immune system.
“Just seeing the blue sky when you’ve haven’t been outside your house for long periods of time has definite effects on mood,”Sue Anne Bell, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan who studies the health effects of disasters, told Business Insider. “We’re under a lot of stress and pressure in these highly unusual times, so going for a walk to clear your mind is really healthy for you – if you can do it safely.”
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