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Health, Science, Environment

To Go Outside Or Not? Safely Getting Outdoors During Coronavirus Shutdown

Marissa Ortega-Welch

Under the "shelter in place" order, we technically can go to parks and walk on trails, but should we and if so, how do we do it safely? KALW's science reporter Marissa Ortega-Welch spoke with UCSF hospitalist Dr. Sajan Patel about the “do’s and don’ts.”

A transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Marissa Ortega-Welch: Can healthy non-coronavirus infected people who are physically able go outside do so under the “shelter in place” order?

Dr. Sajan Patel: Yes, they can. I think the important things here are if you do go outside, you maintain at least six feet of distance from other folks. If you have a family member that you live with it's probably okay that you're near them because that's considered your cohort. But beyond that you want, when you go outside, you want to maintain at least six feet of distance [from anyone outside your household].

The other caveat is that [in terms of] “healthy, uninfected,” it's hard to say. There are many asymptomatic carriers. Anyone could really be walking around with [coronavirus] at this point.

Ortega-Welch: As someone who lives alone, can I schedule, say, a hike with one friend today, a hike with another friend tomorrow, and a hike the following day with a third friend as long as we’re maintaining six feet of distance?

Patel: That's a good question. I think all of us are going a little stir-crazy. The idea behind this is you can go outside; you can go on that hike. The challenging thing, I think, with your question is you're introducing various other people into your circle.

Ideally, if you go hiking, you're going with just the people you either live with or a partner. Different people makes it a challenging case. There's the risk that if you have [coronavirus] or they have it, you will give it to them. If you can absolutely guarantee that you're going to stay six feet away from them at all times; there's no accidental interaction; no hugging; I suppose that could be okay, but I wouldn't share a car; I wouldn't share an enclosed space; I wouldn't go into an enclosed space.

I think the general thing is trying to minimize contact. No new, different people.

Ortega-Welch: There are certain places like Ocean Beach in San Francisco and Lake Merritt in Oakland where anecdotally they seem to be really crowded under these “shelter in place” orders, perhaps even busier than a normal day. Are there any dangers of going to these crowded spaces?

Patel:  Yes, I would say the general guidance is avoid crowds. If a crowd assembles, that'll cause more harm. I think the prudent thing [is] if you go to Lake Merritt or go to Ocean Beach, stay away from the crowd. If you're at Ocean Beach and it's completely crowded, I would avoid it. And hopefully everyone there knows that they should just be either by themselves or with that housemate. In general, the less people together, the better.

Ortega-Welch: There's the question of “what can we do under this order?” and then there's the question of “what should we do?” Does, say, my personal desire to go on a hike supersede the collective public health need for everyone to travel as little as possible right now?

Patel: That's a great question. I'm thinking about [our need] to get outside. I think it’s fine and okay as long as you're being very responsible about it. Again, gathering friends together to go on a group hike is not a great idea. Maintain your distance, don’t touch surfaces, wash your hands, don’t touch your face as much as possible. If you're really strict and conscientious about that, I think it's okay. I don't think we're going to be totally able to lock down people into their houses for however many weeks this is going to take.

Credit Marissa Ortega-Welch
Six feet of space might be bigger than you think. It's about the length of your average couch. Not all hiking trails are this wide and it may be difficult to maintain that much space in between people while walking.

Ortega-Welch: In a couple of weeks from now if we're seeing a lot of cases of this virus in the Bay area, are we going to all wish that we hadn't gone into so many hikes or walks?

Patel: That’s a challenging question. We are going to see an uptick [in cases]. Right now, we're kind of on the upward slope. Are we going to be concerned that it's from the activities outside? That's a challenging question. I don't know the right answer to that. I think if you're being absolutely careful; you're maintaining your distance; you're not crossing county lines; you're not meeting with new people; then I think you can feel okay and at peace that you're not contributing to the problem.

Lastly, if you are sick, please do stay at home, unless of course you're having shortness of breath and trouble breathing, then you should see a doctor.

Ortega-Welch: Do you feel like a reporter asking you about whether or not we can go hiking is the last thing we should be thinking about right now, since there are much bigger concerns to be dealing with in terms of coronavirus?

Patel: No, not at all. I think that this is a very relevant question and it's important because we want to make social-distancing sustainable. If we do it right and we make it sustainable, it can be successful. If you responsibly socially isolate and [socially] distance it will help us in the hospital. It’s a symbiotic relationship. We're helping each other. I appreciate that people are taking this seriously, asking the questions and the more people take it seriously and keep each other honest, the better chance we have of success here.