The good, the bad and the ‘just don’t do it’ of summer fun during a pandemic

By | May 31, 2020

Get out and golf, catch a flick at a drive-in and wrap the day up on a patio — all of those things are now allowed, as Manitoba expands its pandemic summer plans.

But remember the cautions that come with your fun — COVID-19 is a social butterfly, and it likes nothing better than a good crowd, health specialists say.

“The signature of this disease is that it really likes large gatherings, and it really likes large gatherings indoors, in particular,” says Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist with the University of Ottawa. 

What’s more, it’ll show up at those gatherings with no advance notice.

“This virus has an excellent strategy to spread,” says Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr. “It stays under the radar as long as it can, so that it can transmit to as many hosts as possible. That’s the goal of a really smart virus.”

On June 1, Phase 2 of the province of Manitoba’s reopening plan comes into effect, expanding the list of activities that are now allowed to continue — albeit with physical distancing rules attached.

Deonandan, Carr and Michelle Driedger, a University of Manitoba professor of community health, agreed to share their insights with CBC Manitoba about COVID-19 risks, associated with the summer fun activities.

They ranked the risks as low, low to medium, and medium to high. 

The Big Island Drive-In Theatre in Flin Flon. Good news for film fans: the risk of watching a summer flick from the confines of your car ‘is near to nothing,’ says Deonandan. (Dawn Hlady/Big Island Drive-In Theatre)

All share one mitigating factor, Deonandan says. With one of the lowest rates of transmission in the country, Manitobans are in a relatively good position to give these activities a try.

“Manitoba is doing such a good job in general … that you have a little more leeway to open things up, more so than Ontario or Quebec,” he said. “The probability of encountering someone with the disease is small right now.”

Shared risks

All of the activities they ranked share two potential risks, however.

First, the washroom could be a wild card. While some venues are easier to clean (think indoor facilities with hard surfaced countertops), others (campgrounds and portable washrooms) could be riskier.

The best advice? Go before you go or assess the risk at the venue you’re at, Carr says.

Complacency may be one of the biggest risks in any activity, says Winnipeg epidemiologist Cynthia Carr. ‘As human beings, we can only stay at high levels of alert for so long.’ (Submitted by Cynthia Carr)

“When you go into that bathroom, if it doesn’t look clean, I wouldn’t go in. Go at home or go somewhere else,” she said.

The second wild card is the human factor — with confidence will come complacency around the very restrictions that have kept us safe.

“As human beings, we can only stay at high levels of alert for so long,” Carr says.

Which means “we may start to drop our guard,” Driedger says. 

So to offer some guidance, here are some of the newly reopened activities — and the potential risks.

Church services, weddings and funerals (public gatherings)

RISK: medium to high

Indoor gatherings have now been increased to allow up to 25 people (up from 10) and outdoor gatherings can be up to 50 people.

The caveat — people must maintain a separation of at least two metres from others, except for brief exchanges. 

“Risk is higher indoors than it is outdoors simply because there’s a propensity for being a bit closer than if you are outside,” Driedger said.

‘Manitoba is in a really good place’ when it comes to the safety of reopening public activities, says the University of Ottawa’s Dr. Raywat Deonandan. (Submitted by Dr. Raywat Deonandan)

Deonandan agrees.

“Respiratory diseases like a spread … and once you have shared air, the chance of transmission increases,” Deonandan said. “So we don’t like them to be indoors with us.”

It also depends on the activity itself, Driedger says — and how much of the activities are shared.

“In the case of a church service, are you touching the same hymnal?… And of course, if you’re singing, that also introduces an added layer that perhaps is not best at this time.”

That’s why Deonandan would prefer indoor capacity be capped at 10, but because Manitoba’s infection numbers are so low, “25 is the probably the upper level that I’m comfortable with.”

Golfing (recreational facilities)

RISK: Low

Golf courses and some other outdoor recreational facilities, like tennis courts and playgrounds, were allowed to reopen earlier in May under the first phase of the province’s plan, with occupancy limits.

Some of the restrictions for those facilities have been relaxed in Phase 2, but users still have to stay at least two metres from others (except for brief exchanges).

‘People have to decide what’s going to actually best fit their comfort level,’ says U of Manitoba community health professor Michelle Driedger. (Submitted by Michelle Driedger)

“Golfing’s always been one of those activities that’s a bit more isolating,” Driedger said. “Basically, they control your tee-off time, so that they don’t have too many people backed up, particularly at the first hole.”

Deonandan agrees.

“It’s one of the safest things to do.”

Going camping, to the cottage or a resort

RISK: Low to medium

Camping within the province also reopened in Phase 1, but now, travel restrictions have been lifted to allow visitors to  parks, campgrounds, cabins, lodges and resorts in northern Manitoba.

Camping (“the real camping, not car camping,” Deodandan jokes), is relatively low-risk, he says. 

“Camping is great, because you’re probably a small number of people, probably your immediate family.”

The exception, he says, is campgrounds where cars, trailers and small motor homes are crowded together, separated by just a metre of bush.

“That’s not ideal,” he said.

Another caution?

“Shared bathroom facilities are always going to be an issue.”

I’m imagining that any facility might be amping up or doubling down on their cleaning efforts.– Michelle Driedger

Cabins, cottages and getaway lodges are also relatively low-risk, but the caution there comes on behalf of local health authorities.

“The issue with cottage use isn’t so much that it’s dangerous for you,” Deonandan said. “The issue is if you do get sick, then you’re overwhelming the health resources in that community.”

Still, he adds, Manitoba’s low numbers mitigate the risks.

“It’s unlikely that [Winnipeggers] are transmitting cases to rural areas.”

Going swimming, going to the gym (or both)

RISK: Medium

The province says public indoor and outdoor swimming pools, spas, fitness clubs and gyms may now reopen if the public can stay at least two metres away from each other, except for brief exchanges.

Swimming at a pool is safe enough, Deonandan says. 

“There is zero evidence that this thing could be transmitted by a chlorinated water, for example.”

But the risk comes with the activity surrounding that swim. 

“If you’re swimming right next to someone and you’re having a conversation while in the water, that’s bad,” he said. “If you’re sharing bathroom facilities or a meal when you’re not swimming, that’s bad.”

Breaking a sweat

As working out at the gym? Despite maintaining a two-metre distance from one another, it too comes with risk — at least, if you’re doing it right.

“If you’re working hard, you’re still going to be sweating a lot in the confines of a closed space,” Driedger said. 

“And I don’t know about other people, but when I’m exercising, I expel a lot more air, because I’m trying to maintain the number of reps.”

Equally important — the institutional hygiene that is (or isn’t) built into the facility.

“I’m imagining that any facility might be amping up or doubling down on their cleaning efforts and in their spacing, but because it’s indoors, there is always a higher risk than, say, for golfing,” said Driedger.

Go out for dinner/go to a bar

RISK: Low (Outdoor) Medium (Indoor)

While patios were allowed to open in May, indoor dining rooms and bars can now open too, the province says. But occupancy limits of 50 per cent of normal business levels will be in place, as long as tables and seating are arranged so that there is at least a two-metre separation between tables.

If restaurant owners take the required precautions — such as physical distancing and cleaning surfaces like tables and chairs between customers — the risk for transmission is reduced, Deonandan says.

“And, you know, no shared ketchup bottles are being moved from table to table,” he said. “That’s helpful.”

But just being indoors with other people puts you at risk — as does the natural inclination to stay longer and linger over that coffee and dessert.

Dining with masks

It’s also not as easy to take some of the precautions currently recommended.

“It’s not really practical for you to be sitting in a restaurant or in a bar wearing a mask because you can’t eat and drink very well with a mask,” Driedger said.

Indoor bars add another health challenge — the potential combination of loud music and alcohol.

“So in order to hear people, you have to get closer to speak, right?” said Driedger.

As for outdoor venues? Those are a whole lot safer.

“As long as physical distancing and public health practices are in place,” said Deonandan.

Outdoor drive-in theatres/worship services:

RISK: Low

Drive-in movie theatres were allowed to open earlier, but now the rules say religious or other organizations can also hold outdoor drive-in events if people stay in their vehicles (or outside on the left side of their vehicles and two metres apart from one another). 

“The risk is near to nothing,” Deonandan said.

“If you’re not leaving your car, then what’s the risk? You’re essentially taking your home with you.”

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