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Two men in masks walk in the late afternoon sun in Toronto on May 7, 2020.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

For Canadians frustrated – or completely fed up – with restrictions on daily life, summer may seem like a good time to take a break from the onerous rules. After all, the number of new cases of COVID-19 has slowed and warm weather means people can meet outside, where transmission risk is reduced.

But infectious-diseases experts say now is not the time to throw caution to the wind. COVID-19 is still circulating and the vast majority of the population is not immune, meaning a new spike in cases is likely if too many abandon physical distancing.

But that doesn’t mean the summer months need to be spent in isolation. The key will be finding the right balance to enjoy some freedom while still minimizing the risk. Here are some of the principles infectious-disease experts say to keep in mind:

How far from home should you go?

Even if you can find a flight out of the country, a federal advisory against all non-essential travel outside of Canada remains in effect. The border with the U.S. is closed to non-essential traffic and foreign destinations may impose quarantines or other restrictions on visitors. As a result, many Canadians are looking at exploring more of this country over the summer. To that end, the federal government says it will spend $30-million to help Destination Canada, a Crown corporation that typically focuses on marketing to an international audience, switch gears to promote the country here at home.

But many parts of Canada don’t want travellers from other areas visiting this summer. Places such as Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories are prohibiting most visitors from entry. In British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, no specific bans are in place, but officials are advising against non-essential travel into those regions.

It may be tempting to plan a cross-country road trip to destinations still accepting visitors, but infectious-disease experts say this isn’t a good idea. The risks of COVID-19 are different depending on where you go, which means the best advice is for people to stick to their region to avoid the potential for spreading the disease.

“I dislike the idea of people travelling to a different gradient of risk,” said Lynora Saxinger, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. “The more people that are travelling between high and low [COVID-19] activity levels, the higher the risk … of spread.”

Degrees of contact

What about a backyard barbecue? A pool party? Or a get-together with friends at a park?

Lisa Barrett, an infectious-diseases clinician scientist at Dalhousie University, said she focuses less on the activity and more on the variables that could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Namely, how close you get to other people, how long you spend with each other, whether you maintain good hand hygiene and whether alcohol is involved.

Experts agree that outdoors is much safer than indoors in terms of how easily the virus spreads. But some non-peer-reviewed preliminary data published by Wellcome Open Research last month show that people have contracted the disease outdoors.

Dr. Saxinger cited the “3 Cs” approach that is credited with helping Japan keep the number of new cases low while avoiding a full lockdown for months on end. Under that approach, the public is told to avoid closed-off spaces with poor ventilation, crowded places or close conversations with others.

Based on that advice, sitting around an outdoor table sharing a meal with family or friends outside your household poses too high a risk, Dr. Saxinger said.

She said sharing food is a risky activity. “You’re touching spoons and handles and passing things around,” she said. “There’s just a bit more of a possibility of a touch-based transmission. Plus, you’re sitting around a table of a defined size not designed for social distancing.”

It’s still possible to safely visit with others, Dr. Saxinger said, but to keep the risks low, she advises households each be responsible for their own food, plates and utensils, while ensuring they maintain six feet of distance. The same goes for backyard pools. As long as people keep their distance, the risk of transmission is likely to be minimal.

Planning an escape to a nearby hotel or vacation property (in provinces that allow short-term rentals) could also be okay, as long as you maintain distance from others and clean countertops, door handles and other high-touch surfaces.

“I would never assume that somebody is as good as cleaning something as I am,” Dr. Barrett said.

She also highlighted the specific risks posed by alcohol consumption, which can lower inhibitions and change how people respond and react to situations.

Dr. Barrett said people can still enjoy some beer or wine outside with friends or family this summer, but they need to be aware that it could likely change their risk perception and put them in a compromising situation.

“Be very, very aware that your bubble may be compromised,” she said.

Who will be there?

When weighing the risks of leisure activities, keep in mind that some people are more vulnerable. Seniors, for instance, are more susceptible to complications related to COVID-19.

“If you want to do something with grandma or grandpa, you’d particularly be thinking about the close contact, the outdoor versus indoor and not sharing meals because the stakes there are higher,” Dr. Saxinger said.

Health care workers, grocery store employees and other essential workers will likely also have to consider their risks differently from people who are largely confined to their homes. For instance, in the Greater Toronto Area, where COVID-19 continues to spread, many essential workers have become infected, meaning they and their social bubbles may be at an increased risk if they relax any rules around physical distancing.

For people whose jobs or living arrangements make physical distancing difficult, opportunities to safely enjoy social interactions may be fewer. Experts say health officials need to come up with creative solutions, such as hotel rooms, to help those individuals self-isolate to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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