The COVID-19 case statistics continue to be staggering, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising Americans not to travel due to the pandemic.
COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the nation are rising. As colder weather arrives, more people will be indoors and in close quarters, which can add to the spread.
Health experts say the best way to keep yourself safe during the COVID-19 pandemic is to stay home.
“However, as we quickly approach our first COVID anniversary, more and more people are looking for ways to leave their home and still stay safe. If you travel somewhere, consider being tested about three to five days before you go,” says MarkAlain Dery, medical director of infectious diseases for Access Health Louisiana in New Orleans. “Keep in mind, though, a negative test is not an all-clear. Until we have a widely distributed vaccine, you should not behave as if you are COVID negative.”
Spending time outdoors while practicing social distancing can be a welcome respite for people who want fresh air and a chance to get exercise.
“Physical activity promotes our health and well-being,” says Jan K. Carney, professor of medicine and associate dean for public health and health policy at Robert Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont in Burlington. ”It is great for people to stay active outdoors.”
But are some activities safer than others? And are there ways to reduce risks as much as possible?
“The short answer to both is yes,” Carney tells USA TODAY, noting that outdoor activities are often less risky than indoor activities, with some caveats.
“The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads mostly between people through respiratory droplets. So, three general things can impact this: the distance between people, crowds and whether people are wearing masks.”
Cold weather activities
If skiing is your outdoor activity of choice, decide whether you can drive to the slopes or whether you must fly. Carney says when downhill skiing, people are more than 6 feet apart, often wear masks and are mostly outdoors.
“Many ski resorts have changed practices to provide distance when waiting in lines or having people from the same group ride together on lifts,” Carney says, noting skiing with only members of your household is the least risky choice.
Ski season and COVID-19:What you need to know before you head to the slopes
Because of the pandemic, some ski areas have limited capacity and have even changed food “to go,” limiting indoor time and reducing crowds.
Want to reduce your risk even further?
“Bring your own lunch. And if you want a new and more socially distant activity, try cross-country skiing – outdoors, plenty of space and great exercise,” Carney adds.
There are also ways before and after you ski to mitigate risk.
“Of concern are the high-traffic areas like ski lifts,” says Alaina Brinley Rajagopal, a Southern California-based emergency medicine physician, virologist and host of the Emergency Docs podcast. “Be sure to maintain your distance from others in line for the lift, and while it isn’t practical to sanitize the lift before you get on, if you leave your gloves and mask on and are certain to never touch your face with your gloves or unwashed hands, that should decrease the risk. Don’t sit on the lift with strangers. Avoid après-ski gatherings.”
Warm weather activities
If you live in or are vacationing in a warmer environment, Rajagopal says to choose activities like kayaking, surfing, sailing, scuba diving, snorkeling or any water activity. “These activities are usually pretty distant from others and safe,” she says. “If you need gear for these activities, use your own gear or be sure to sanitize any rented gear.”
If you’re hiking, backpacking or camping, she suggests trying to get into the backcountry or to go somewhere off the beaten path.
“The less you come into contact with other people, the safer you’ll be,” Rajagopal tells USA TODAY.
For those who want to enjoy the beach, be mindful of crowds.
”If there are no other people on the beach or you won’t come into contact with other people at the beach, it’s safe to take the mask off,” Rajagopal says. “If the beach is busy, it’s best to try another day, another time or to wear your mask except when you’re in the water.” Rajagopal also suggests going to beaches early in the morning or later in the evening to avoid crowds.
Keep your distance:How to stay safe from coronavirus at the pool and at the beach
Although theme parks are outside and while some social distancing can be done, Rajagopal advises travelers to reconsider visiting one right now.
“Theme parks are pretty tough; I would advise people against going to theme parks since they are basically all high-touch surfaces with people crammed into lines and other tight spaces,” she says. “It’s impossible to properly social distance and, at this stage, pretty unsafe. I’d recommend waiting until after your family has been vaccinated to go to theme parks.”
Disneyland reopening:No time soon under new California theme park guidelines
Another consideration is how you’re getting to your destination. If you’re driving, you need to factor in stopping to use the restroom and getting food.
“Whenever you get out of your car, you should be wearing a mask and maintain your distance from strangers,” says Ashley Wood, a registered nurse in Atlanta and contributor to Demystifying Your Health. “If possible, get your meals to go and eat in your car.”
After you make a stop and get back into your car, use hand sanitizer. If you’re traveling by plane, she says wear your mask in the airport and while on the plane – plus, all U.S. airlines require it. Be sure to use sanitizing wipes, and clean your seat thoroughly.
If you are staying in a hotel, be sure to check their policies regarding sanitation before your trip.
“It is best to stay somewhere isolated from others, such as a full-home rental,” Dery says. “Consider camping, as well – each family can stay in their own tent and share socially distant outdoor meals with the other families.”
If you stay with people who are not part of your immediate family or who don’t live in your household, he says to remain masked and practice social distancing in all common spaces.
“Every household should have their own rooms, and all meals are best eaten outside at a safe distance from each other. Stick to your ‘pod’ when your mask is off,” Dery says.
Being outdoors is healthy for you
Spending time safely outdoors promotes wellness – in both mind and body.
“Getting outdoors into sunlight is paramount to our health,” says Matt Farr, author of the new book “Immune System Hacks.” “Exposure to sunlight increases vitamin D, energy and antioxidant levels and lowers inflammation, all of which improve our immunity and many other areas of health.”
He says nature provides fantastic nourishment to our physical, mental and emotional well-being, which can be much-needed around the holidays and amid the pandemic.
“It helps calm the nervous system, release stress, lower inflammation and educates and facilitates the immune system,” says Farr, a wellness coach, adding that outdoor exercise benefits us far beyond burning a few calories.