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

Rachna Singh, MLA for Surrey-Green Timbers, is the Parliamentary Secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com/photos/bcgovphotos)
A micro brewery is being eyed for Jordan River. However, the site where the brewery is proposed still needs to go through the rezoning process. (Black Press Media file)
Micro brewery proposed for Jordan River

Jordan River Brewing Company envisions to build wholesale, sit-in brewery along Highway 14

Traffic waits at the intersection of Highway 17 and Beacon Avenue. A study found failing levels of service at the intersection of Highway 17 and Sidney’s Beacon Avenue for multiple movements during morning peak traffic and for all left-moving traffic during afternoon peak traffic. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Province supports potential interim improvements to Sidney intersection

Province says interchange is the long-term plan for intersection of Beacon Avenue and Highway 17

Oak Bay local Lachlan Kratz (red, middle) has signed with pro rugby team NOLO Gold in Louisiana. (Contributed photo)
Oak Bay local signs with pro rugby team

Lachlan Kratz at 21 is now NOLO Gold’s youngest member

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

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

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

The Attorney General’s Ministry says certain disputes may now be resolved through either a tribunal or the court system, pending its appeal of a B.C. Supreme Court decision that reduced the tribunal’s jurisdiction. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Court of Appeal grants partial stay in ruling on B.C. auto injuries

B.C. trial lawyers challenged legislation brought in to cap minor injury awards and move smaller court disputes to the Civil Resolution Tribunal

Most Read