The risk of spreading COVID-19 outdoors is higher in winter than in summer. An expert explains

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The current winter outdoor recreation season has unfortunately coincided with an unprecedented rise in COVID-19 infection rates in Ontario and a province-wide lockdown.

So what if you want to take advantage of the winter months for outdoor leisure activities? What kind of outdoor winter activities can you do during the pandemic? We asked Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness for advice.

What do people need to know about outdoor recreation activities during COVID-19?

Winter versus summer is an important distinction. In warm, humid air, droplets settle quickly to the ground and COVID does not survive for long. In cold, dry air, droplets evaporate quickly, leaving COVID airborne and alive for much longer. So what is safe outside in the summer, including overcrowding, is much more dangerous in the winter.

When you exhale and can “see” your breath, you see your droplets – the vapor disappears almost immediately because the water immediately evaporates.

Maintaining physical distance is really important outside in the winter. A breeze is protective – if you can’t keep a lighter or a candle burning, that’s enough breeze. A lack of breeze – like being in a tent or other type of shelter from the wind is extremely dangerous.

What are people doing wrong with outdoor recreation?

In general, what people do wrong outside is to behave like in summer – to be up close without a mask and assume it’s safe, but it’s not.

I would recommend using a mask outside if there is a chance to be close to others. Masks outdoors are not as uncomfortable as they are in summer and should be worn if there is the prospect of overcrowding.

Skiing (ski resorts are closed in the lockdown), skating, sledding, sledding – should we or shouldn’t we?

The skiing should be fine as long as the crowds are avoided at the chairlifts and changing rooms – it’s not the activity but the crowds around it that I would be concerned about.

The skating should be fine, again avoiding crowding in the dressing areas. Because the rinks are often crowded, a mask would be a good idea, especially since there might be heavier breathing with this physical activity.

Tobogganing or sledding is a concern. Certainly only members of the same household should be together, but I’m concerned about collisions and crowding down the slope and lining up at the top. I would avoid this activity if it was crowded.

What about running, jogging and cycling?

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Running and biking should be great because you are creating wind or breeze that dispels droplets and virus particles. Runners should be aware of suddenly coming behind people while running… giving everyone a wide seat while breathing hard is a considerate thing to do. The danger is minimal because the contact is fleeting, but the upheaval is real.

In general, remember that cold air is dangerous for the transmission of the virus, but a breeze is protective.

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Does this news surprise you? What steps have you taken to limit the spread of COVID-19 this winter?

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