Summer during a pandemic brings new questions about what is safe and how to best protect ourselves — especially now that the Washington region is reopening.
Is it okay to go to a public pool? Travel by plane? Stay in a hotel? Send a kid to camp?
On the upside, public health experts say, we can do more outdoors, where ventilation is better and sunlight and humidity might help destroy the virus. Working against us: Many of us cooped up for much of the spring are craving connection. Meanwhile, staying away from others in traditional summer scenarios — at cookouts, on beaches, during family reunions — can be difficult. And many summer activities children typically take part in — sports leagues, day camps and sleep-away camps — pose their own challenges.
The Washington Post asked three public health experts what they and their families will — and won’t — do this summer and what precautions they will take.
“Yes, we have to get back to having fun,” said Richard Jackson, a pediatrician and professor emeritus at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. “But we need to do it very carefully and differently until we have this infection under control.”
What, in general, will you consider when deciding where to go and what to do this summer?
The experts say they will continue to limit contact with anyone outside their households and keep any gatherings small.
“I won’t expand my sphere too much,” Jackson said.
Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, said she is aware the risk of exposure is increasing as more people venture out.
“I’ll really try to keep anything I do small and outdoors as much as possible — and with people who will be wearing a mask,” Sexton said.
Julie Fischer, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University, said she and her family will remain extra vigilant so they can feel safer visiting grandparents later in the summer.
“I’ll be thinking about how much I’m in contact with other people,” Fischer said, “particularly people whose risk background we don’t know about.”
Would you travel by plane?
All three say they would avoid it, if possible.
Plane travel falls short in three key ways: It is indoors, requires close contact with people outside the household and keeps a crowd together for an extended amount of time.
“There’s a real risk when you’re crammed into a small space with other people,” Fischer said. “I personally will probably be doing family car trips this summer.”
If she did have to fly, Fischer said, she would be careful to not adjust or touch her mask, from the moment she entered the terminal or other public space at her departure airport to the moment she left the terminal or other public space on the other end. Every mask adjustment or touch of the face or eyes, she said, increases the risk of transmission.
(Most U.S. airlines — and a few airports, including in Los Angeles and San Francisco — required masks as of late May.)
Fischer said she also would bring disinfecting wipes to clean the tray table, the arm rests, the call button and any other high-touch surfaces and would wash or disinfect her hands as soon as possible after getting off.
Sexton said she would not feel safe flying because of how close she would be to others while moving through the airport, waiting at a gate and sitting on a potentially crowded plane.
“Right now,” Sexton said, “I think the fewer people you can be around, the better.”
Jackson said that he would not want to fly now but that he will need to if he wants to meet a new grandchild in August — and if the number of covid-19 cases has declined by then.
If he does, Jackson said, he will wear a mask “as a measure of respect for other people” and probably gloves while he wiped down “everything around me” as he got settled in his seat. He said he is comfortable with airlines promising to disinfect planes in between trips and thinks their ventilation systems “are actually quite good.”
But for now, Jackson said, “I don’t want to be sitting with a bunch of strangers.”
Would you go to a public pool?
While many public pools are closed, two of the three experts said they would consider going if pools do open. The pool itself is relatively low-risk because chlorine generally kills viruses, they said. It is all the other activity in and around the pool that is worrisome — kids splashing and playing close to one another, people congregating at the snack bar, and poolgoers together in changing rooms.
Fischer said she would go only if she saw deck chairs spaced apart. She said she also would check for signs reminding people to distance themselves and marks on the ground to help keep people apart in snack-bar lines. And she said she would make sure employees were wearing masks and that restrooms were disinfected frequently and well stocked with hand soap.
Even with such precautions, Fischer said, she would be reluctant to take younger children, because it is harder to keep them away from others.
“Some activities like the wading pool just might not be practical this summer,” she said.
Jackson said he would go, “but I’d keep my distance,” such as by sticking to swimming laps in his own lane.
Sexton said she still sees public pools as too risky.
“I think you still have too many people in close quarters,” she said.
She said she is also concerned about the number of high-touch surfaces in and around pools, such as railings and lounge chairs.
For those who do go, Sexton recommended bringing their own drinks and food to avoid water fountains and snack bars, as well as hand sanitizer to use after touching common areas.
Would you go to the beach?
All three said they would, because being outdoors is relatively low-risk. But they said they would pay close attention to whether they could stay at least six feet from others.
“I’d 100 percent go to a beach and enjoy it,” Fischer said. “But if we get there and see a crowd, we’ll simply turn around” and leave.
She said she would also look for frequent cleanings of public restrooms, with ample supplies of hand soap and no one congregating at entrances.
Jackson said he would “absolutely” go but only with people in his household. “I’d stay on my blanket and not be around a lot of people,” he said.
Sexton said she would avoid crowds and bring a mask for walks that might bring her closer to others.
“I’ve seen photos of incredibly crowded beaches where there’s no room to spread apart from other people,” Sexton said. “That I would not do.”
Would you go on a road trip?
This is the experts’ preferred mode of travel this summer, but only with members of their households.
The main risks, they said, will be at gas stations, convenience stores, fast-food restaurants and public bathrooms. All three said they would wear masks inside any buildings and wash or sanitize their hands after stops, especially after pumping gas and using public restrooms.
Sexton said she would choose drive-throughs over waiting in line or sitting down at restaurants.
Jackson said he would avoid restroom hand dryers because they blow air particles around. Instead, he said, he would bring his own paper towels to dry his hands, turn off faucets and open doors.
Would you visit grandparents?
Because of seniors’ greater vulnerability, the experts said, they would be careful to keep a safe distance and have everyone wear masks and wash or sanitize hands frequently. Shorter visits outdoors would be best, they said.
Fischer said she will be extra strict with stay-home measures in the 14 days before such a visit and drive rather than fly. And as tempting as hugs will be, she said, “it’s really safer for your relatives, no matter how much you want to see and hug and touch them, to maintain your distance.”
When planning a visit, Sexton said, she would pay close attention to how much she or others in her household have socialized, attended camps, left home for work or had other points of potentially greater exposure.
“If you’re really able to keep that six-foot distance and wear masks, it’s probably okay,” Sexton said. “But I’d avoid prolonged exposure and anything where you can’t distance or wear a face mask.”
Would you stay in a hotel?
All three said yes, but they would increase their comfort by bringing disinfectant to wipe down common-touch surfaces in their rooms, such as doorknobs, bathroom faucets and the TV remote.
Sexton said she will try to schedule travel to avoid overnight stays. But if she needs to stay in a hotel, she will call ahead to ask how the housekeeping staff, front-desk workers and other employees are screened for symptoms and how rooms are sanitized between guests. She said she would also avoid using hotel restaurants, gyms or pools.
“You don’t know who was there before you,” she said, “and how it’s been cleaned between people.”
Would you go camping?
All three said camping is a good choice because it is relatively safe outdoors, as long as you stay with people in your household, avoid crowds, make sure campsites are at least six feet apart and vigilantly wash or sanitize hands after using public restrooms.
“But if you think of camping as a bunkhouse with 15 strangers,” Jackson said, “I wouldn’t do that.”
Would you go to a cookout?
All three said yes, but only if they can keep their distance outside.
While many states are continuing to limit gatherings to 10 people or less, the experts said group size also should be limited by the amount of space available. If a deck or yard is not big enough for guests to remain at least six feet apart, they said, 10 is too many.
“Remember,” Fischer said, “the more households you bring together, the more risk you’re taking.”
Fischer said she might prefer using disposable plates and utensils and would avoid sharing serving utensils. She would also encourage washing or sanitizing hands.
Jackson said he would make sure outdoor gatherings did not include face-to-face games, such as volleyball.
And what about using a host’s indoor bathroom? Sexton said she thinks it is relatively low-risk, as long as people remain apart. If guests know where the bathroom is, she said, she would not escort them.
The emphasis, Sexton said, should be on having guests wash their hands after using the restroom. The host can always disinfect faucet handles and other high-touch areas afterward.
Would you send a child to day camp?
All three said parents need to weigh their need for child care against their child’s additional risk of exposure at camps, akin to what schools might see in the fall.
They said they assume it will be difficult, if not impossible, to keep children away from one another, particularly at younger ages. Their biggest concern is the added risk to others in the child’s home or with whom they will have contact, such as grandparents.
“I’d have to acknowledge I was taking a risk and assume we’d have to not expose other people,” Fischer said.
That might include taking extra precautions around grandparents or not seeing them until mostly staying home for 14 days after the camp ends, Fischer said.
Fischer said she would send her children if she needed child care. However, she said, she would look at how campers would be encouraged to wash or sanitize hands, how often shared surfaces would be disinfected and how campers, counselors and other staffers would be screened for covid-19 symptoms.
Jackson said his decision would depend on how closely children would be monitored.
“I think it would have to be very well supervised,” he said.
Sexton said she would hold off because of the potential for an outbreak among so many families. “It’s almost impossible to get kids to socially distance in a day-camp environment,” she said.
If she needed the child care, Sexton said, she would ask the camp director about how staffers and campers would be screened and how a sick child or staffer would be handled. She said she would also check for hand-washing facilities and whether campers and staffers would wear masks, even outdoors.
“I’d really try to get a sense of how much they’ve thought about this,” she said.
Would you allow your child to play team sports?
The answer depends on the sport.
Children on opposite sides of the tennis court or in their own lap lanes would be safer than those huffing and puffing within a few feet of one another on the soccer field or basketball court.
As with day camps, they said, a big concern is how quickly the virus could spread among children, including those who are asymptomatic but might bring it home to parents or older relatives.
If children do play, they said, they would ask coaches how they would keep kids apart, such as by staggering practices or spacing baseball players along a fence rather than having them congregate in a dugout.
“It would be a matter of how crowded it was going to be,” Fischer said.
Sexton said her decision would depend on the sport but she would “lean toward no” because of the potential for close contact and shared equipment.
“I think that’s going to have to be done very carefully,” Sexton said.
Would you send a child to sleep-away camp?
The risks, experts said, are akin to what universities and colleges will face in the fall with people from across the country living in close quarters for weeks at a time.
Jackson said he would consider the camp managers’ judgment, including how they might handle a serious illness.
“I think the most important thing is: Do you trust these people?” Jackson said. “You really have to have confidence that the people in charge are really taking this seriously.”
Fischer said she would not send a child now because of the speed at which an outbreak could occur.
“I think sleep-away camp this summer is not terribly practical,” she said.
If she did want to send a child, she said, she would make sure that the camp had close medical supervision in case someone became ill and that children, counselors and other staffers could be tested, before they arrived and if any developed symptoms. Fischer said she would also want the camp to have “really stringent” rules for children and counselors to stay home as much as possible for 14 days before arriving.
Sexton said she would not send a child away to camp because of the tight quarters. Moreover, she said, their often remote locations could leave them farther from hospitals in case of serious illnesses.
Would you bring a babysitter into your home?
Fischer said she would do so if necessary but only after “very frank discussions about expectations.”
That’s because her family would effectively end up “co-bubbling” with the sitter’s entire household, as well as anyone they have contact with. For example, she said, she would want to discuss whether anyone in the sitter’s household had a high-exposure job or was frequenting crowded places.
“It’s all about being transparent with each other — what are your risks? — and agreeing to minimize them,” Fischer said.
Jackson said he would weigh the potential risks of increasing his family’s exposure to the need for child care, especially as more parents return to offices or other job sites.
“If you’re doing the best you can to get your life together, that’s not a bad thing,” Jackson said. “I think one of the lessons of this pandemic is you do the best you can and take care of each other.”