The question that's causing major decision fatigue for mamas right now: What's safe for my family to do this summer?
With 30 states now showing increasing rates of infection, there's a lot of gray area in how individuals choose to interpret what's "safe" right now—in fact, you could argue that the gray area is roughly the size of the entire country. Are socially distanced play dates okay? What about a picnic in the park with friends—masks on? Can we get sick if we take the kids to the beach?
Here's what the experts say about what summer activities are safest during the pandemic, and how to evaluate what's safe for your family.
First and foremost, know that you are the ultimate decision-maker for your family—and it’s okay if you don’t feel ready to take risks right now.
In the absence of clear national health guidelines for the weirdest summer in decades, it's up to individuals to decide what feels right and safe for them. If your family includes even a single immunocompromised or older individual, your tolerance for risk is probably going to remain low—or close to zero. Likewise, if you are pregnant or the parent of a newborn infant, you are probably going to want to remain cautious about what "reopening" means for you.
On the other hand, if you live in an area where cases are low and declining, hospitalizations are low and declining, the public health system is stable and social distancing is taken seriously—and no one in your family belongs to an at-risk group—you might decide that getting together with friends and family is a risk you are willing to take (with reasonable precautions for yourself and others) for the sake of your mental health and your children.
If this is the case, you're taking the position that's right for you. If you decide you're not ready, then that's what's right for your family. You know your family's particular situation best.
How to evaluate (and minimize) potential risks
Experts agree, there's no such thing as a zero-risk summer activity this year when it comes to coronavirus transmission. That said, the number one rule to live by (and make decisions by) right now, according to public health experts, is to keep track of overall trends in testing and positive cases where you live. If you live in in area where the rate of infection is rising, your tolerance for risk should be going down accordingly.
Epidemiologists identify the risk factors for coronavirus transmission in terms of "time, space, people, place."
The ideal combination for lowering risk is a short amount of time, with more space between fewer people in a larger place. So, a day at an uncrowded beach on a blanket 6 feet from other people is lower risk than a birthday party indoors with a group of families.
As Dr. Emily Landon, a hospital epidemiologist and infectious diseases specialist at University of Chicago Medicine, puts it for ProPublica, "Always choose outdoors over indoor, always choose masking over not masking and always choose more space for fewer people over a smaller space."
As author and economist Emily Oster notes in her helpful guide to making tough decisions during the pandemic, "No decision is guaranteed to stop anyone from getting sick, and no decision will doom you...We have to accept some uncertainty to move forward."
With that in mind, here's a guide to specific activities and how experts evaluate them right now.
Is going to the beach or pool safe?
Risk level: Lower
Assuming 6 feet of social distancing between everybody's towels, the beach or pool is a relatively safe bet for a summer activity. Why? Wind, sunshine and heat all tend to dilute the virus, according to scientists interviewed in the New York Times, and the virus is also unlikely to spread through the water, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
"The sheer volume of water will dilute out the virus, making the water a highly unlikely source of infection," Dr. Andrew Janowski, a pediatric infectious diseases expert at Washington University in St. Louis, told ProPublica.
You can keep this activity low-risk by maintaining distance between yourself and others, going to the beach or pool for a limited period of time during off-peak hours (think about a morning at the lake, rather than an all-day hang) and by packing your own lunch, drinks and snacks. If you do need to use a public restroom or changing area, wear a mask and wash your hands well, especially after touching shared surfaces.
Is going camping safe?
Risk level: Lower
Camping is one of the great joys of summer—for some families, anyway—and it's relatively low risk in terms of coronavirus transmission. So if campgrounds have reopened in your area (check your state's Department of Natural Resources website for the latest status) and if sleeping outdoors and cooking meals over a campfire are your idea of summer fun, get out the tent.
Camping at an uncrowded campground with only your family members is the lowest-risk version of this activity. Adding other variables to the mix such as camping with another family or using busy common restrooms and facilities will layer on some additional risk of exposure.
Is renting a vacation house with another family safe?
Risk level: Low
This is one that comes with a lot of conditions, unfortunately, but if both families have been limiting their exposure and observing stay-at-home restrictions, and can agree on certain safety considerations without damaging a valuable relationship, vacationing with another family could be an attractive alternative to climbing the walls at home.
In the best-case scenario, according to experts, both families have been quarantining and limiting their exposure to others, both families agree in advance about what constitutes safety precautions before and during the trip—and, crucially, both families keep to themselves and limit exposure beyond their "bubble" while they are vacationing together.Choosing a vacation home in an area with low local transmission is key, too. "In vacation areas that have high community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 or in areas that will get a lot of visitor foot traffic from different areas, the risk of viral transmission could be significant and could lead to new viral hot spots in vacation towns," Jill Weatherhead, MD, an assistant professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine tells Health magazine.
Is a backyard gathering with another family safe?
Risk level: Low to medium
An outdoor gathering with one other conscientious family—with everybody wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart—would meet the "time, space, people, place" criteria for a lower-risk activity right now, according to experts.
If food or drink is involved, make sure it's a BYOB potluck with no shared utensils. But since eating and drinking involve lowering masks (and vigilance, especially after a beer or two) consider getting together for some kind of shared activity like a lawn game, instead of a meal.
Is an outdoor playdate with another family safe?
Risk level: Low to medium
Kids at playdates don't observe social distancing rules—it's just not in their natures. But if your child's best friend comes from another family who has been reducing their exposure and closely observing social distancing, getting together for an hour-long outdoor playdate could fall under a similar level of risk as a backyard BYO gathering with another family. Making sure that kids don't touch their faces and minimizing physical contact (play soccer or no-touch hide-and-seek, rather than sharing Legos) helps reduce risk. Be sure to wash those hands, and keep in mind the "time, space, people, place" criteria for keeping the risk as low as possible.
It's worth noting that the official take on playdates still hasn't changed since the outset of the pandemic. CDC guidelines state pretty plainly that playdates are not recommended: "If children meet in groups, it can put everyone at risk. While school is out, children should not have in-person playdates with children from other households. If children are playing outside their own homes, it is essential that they remain 6 feet from anyone who is not in their own household."
The upshot on playdates right now: You alone can decide for your family whether the risks are worth the benefits.
Is staying at a hotel while traveling safe?
Risk level: Medium
Hotels are, by definition, full of other people you don't know (who come from all over the place) staying indoors for lengthy periods of time, so they definitely don't meet the optimal "time, space, people, place" criteria for lowering the risk of transmission.
That said if your family strictly limits time spent in public areas like the lobby, elevators, restaurant or an indoor pool, that can reduce your risk. Wearing masks and maintaining distance outside your room are also must-dos.
Send one person from the family to the lobby to check-in, ride the elevator with as few other people as possible (in some hotels, lobby waits may be long as elevators are restricted to one family unit per ride), wash hands as soon as you enter your room or touch any high-contact surfaces, wipe down high-touch surfaces in your room with disinfectant and ask that housekeeping be suspended during your stay in order to minimize the number of people entering your room.
Experts also suggest that if you must stay in a hotel right now, choose one that is transparent about its cleaning and distancing practices. "Stay at a reputable place that discloses their cleaning tactics," Dr. Neha Vyas, MD, a family medicine physician at Cleveland Clinic tells Health.
Is sleepaway camp or day camp safe?
Risk level: Medium
Detailed recommendations for camps and childcare programs released in late May by the CDC suggest that summer camp will look different this year than in years past—and in some parts of the country, including Minnesota, Kansas, and other states, sleepaway camps will not operate this summer at all.
Sleepaway camp directors who have committed to reopening are taking the responsibility seriously, with practices like quarantining counselors and campers for two weeks before and after arrival, daily temperature checks for campers and staffers, rearranging bunks and mess halls to improve physical spacing, dividing kids into small cohorts and minimizing exposure to environments outside of camp. Some camps have even proposed opening up for families to attend together as a kind of isolation vacation.
At summer day camps, where large numbers of children gather daily and then disperse to their homes, that kind of isolation isn't possible. But choosing a camp that meets outdoors and strictly follows recommendations for testing, cleaning supplies, community distancing, "cohorting" campers and maintaining hygiene may reduce risk.
Camp will be a lifeline for many parents who need to work this summer—and a welcome break from nonstop screen time for kids. But it's impossible for any summer camp to guarantee that no camper or staffer will get sick.
Is childcare safe?
Risk level: Medium
By definition, childcare is an environment where children and adults from all over the neighborhood gather together for hours at a time, and are often indoors by necessity. Plus, as we all know, little kids are just not great about maintaining social distance. So much for "time, space, people, place." It's easy to see why viruses found an easy foothold in daycares and schools, long before the coronavirus pandemic.
The CDC's guidelines for safely reopening childcare facilities, which are very similar to the guidelines for camps and schools, suggest daily temperature checks along with frequent cleaning, separating children's belongings, dividing children into small cohorts, lowering capacity and making sure staffers wear masks, among other recommendations. Following these guidelines will likely be a strain for many providers, but look for a childcare provider that is doing everything they can to minimize exposure.
As experts point out, keeping kids safe and healthy while in daycare will depend on more than just childcare providers following strict guidelines—parents will also need to participate actively in keeping their childcare facility safe, by communicating with their provider, maintaining healthy best practices at home and most importantly, by keeping kids home if anyone in the family is sick or exposed to the virus. "This is where participation of everyone within the community is required," Weatherhead notes.
Child Care Aware of America, a national resource and advocacy organization for childcare providers, is maintaining a state-by-state list of local regulations for childcare providers, as well as updates on where childcare facilities are allowed to open and where they're not.
The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit education policy research organization, also maintains a detailed list of childcare closings, reopenings and regulations by state. Guidelines and regulations for childcare providers reopening this summer will vary from state to state, so be sure to understand what's considered "safe" where you live.The upshot: Whether it's safe to send your child to daycare in your area will depend greatly on local transmission levels, and on how closely your childcare community can adhere to the guidelines that help minimize risk. You alone can decide for your family whether the risks are worth the benefits.
Are amusement parks safe?
Risk level: Medium
Again, keeping in mind the "time, space, people, place" theory of reducing the risk of virus transmission, theme parks are a bit of a mixed bag. They're huge and mostly outside, but on the other hand, they're crowded full of people you don't know, and if you can find a way to ride a roller coaster without physically touching it you probably don't need to go to Hogwarts.
In areas where virus transmission levels are currently high, such as Florida and California, amusement parks may not be reopening any time soon. Where amusement parks are allowed to open, expect regulations and rules that aim to reduce risk as much as possible, from frequent deep-cleanings to requiring masks.
If you are lucky enough to snag a ticket to a reopened amusement park this summer, there are ways you can reduce your own risk of exposure as well. Bring your own hand sanitizer, wipes, drinks and food, touch as little as you can, go indoors as infrequently as you can and finally, try to go during less-busy times if possible—and for shorter periods of time. It may not be the epic family fun trip you envisioned, but a little bit of magic these days goes a long way.
[This was originally published May 29, 2020. It has been updated.]