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Nai Ling Rivas took her family to a park in Calgary’s Beltline neighbourhood on a recent sunny afternoon to celebrate her mother-in-law’s birthday. The adults chatted while spaced apart at a nearby bench while her two sons, both wearing masks, spent time on the playground.
Ms. Rivas said she was looking forward to more of these outings as winter melted away into spring, but it hasn’t turned out that way. The small birthday gathering was an exception, she said. Otherwise, her family has been mostly staying at home in the face of daily headlines about increasing COVID-19 infections and more-contagious variants.
“You think, ‘Okay, the weather is getting better, maybe we can go outside,’ ” said Ms. Rivas, 39. “Now, you don’t feel like it’s the right decision.”
Ms. Rivas lets her children decide whether to wear masks on the playground. They wear them all day at school and they need a break, she said. Eleven-year-old Benjamin says he’s too nervous to be on the playground without one.
Rapidly increasing infections across the country and the growing prevalence of variants are changing the equation of how to stay safe ahead of a looming third wave, including outside, which has been seen as a haven since the pandemic began.
Alberta has warned that the province has had cases of COVID-19 transmission outside, believed to be driven by the variants. And experts say that, while being outdoors is still significantly safer than inside, the variants have increased the risk everywhere.
“The weather is nice and it’s good to be able to go for a walk, but people still need to be careful, especially with these much more infectious variants,” said Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist who teaches at the University of Toronto.
“Maybe what we did last year we won’t be able to do this year unless there’s enough people vaccinated.”
Dr. Banerji said it’s troubling that COVID-19 infections are increasing despite the warmer weather. The variants are a big reason, she said, as well as people getting tired of the pandemic and letting their guard down.
She also recognizes that people need to be able to socialize outside after a second wave of infections kept many people indoors and isolated over the winter.
“I think it’s important after a very long year that people do go outside and get some fresh air, and we know that it’s much safer to be outside than inside,” she said. “You still need to be quite careful.”
Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Deena Hinshaw, has pointed to a recent increase in outdoor transmission to urge people to maintain their vigilance. Her office declined to provide more details, including the numbers of outdoor infections identified through contact tracing and how much that has increased.
Dr. Hinshaw said the cases that have been identified have involved social gatherings where people had long conversations while not wearing masks or keeping physically distanced.
“I want to be clear that socializing outside is absolutely safer than socializing inside,” she said at a recent COVID-19 briefing. “If people are outside but they are neither distanced nor wearing masks, then just being outside is not sufficient to prevent spread.”
Peter Juni, director of Ontario’s science table and a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said being outside reduces the risk of infection by about 10 times compared with doing the same thing indoors.
The variants haven’t changed that, but he said the more contagious forms of COVID-19 are 40 to 50 per cent more infectious regardless of the setting.
Dr. Juni said that means things that were not good ideas before – ignoring masking and distancing while outside, dining on a patio with someone outside your household – are even worse ideas now. He worries that people are more likely to ignore the tried-and-true public health advice just because they’re outdoors.
“Promoting outdoors over indoors is not about risk elimination – it’s just about decreasing the risk and finding an optimal way to deal with the really difficult situation,” he said.
“We’re talking about the variants of concern taking over. In this situation, everybody should just continue on the same playbook.”
Michael Brauer, who teaches in the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health, said the easiest way to stay safe outside is to follow the same recommendations people have lived with for the past year.
He said a walk outside is relatively low risk if everyone keeps their distance and wears a mask. One advantage to this is that people do not necessarily face each other while talking. Dr. Brauer said if he encounters someone outside for more than a brief interaction, he puts on a mask and expects them to do the same. And he said people should continue to avoid large outdoor gatherings.
“All of this was always true, but it’s even more important to consider with the variants,” he said. “I think many people viewed outdoors as being completely safe. It never was completely safe, it was just safer. And now it’s probably less safe than it was before.”
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