As the summer goes on and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in the U.S., many people are spending more time outside. Some locations offer plenty of solitude and distancing—but at busy local places like the Deschutes River Trail or Smith Rock State Park, it's very possible to be within someone else's 6-foot physical bubble.
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- Masks are now required outdoors if maintaining a 6-foot physical bubble is impossible, so grab a mask when heading out to the Deschutes River Trail and other crowded outdoor areas. While the coronavirus is still contagious outside, thanks to the wind and constant air circulation, it's much safer to meet friends and family outdoors than in poorly ventilated indoor spaces.
With people spending so much time outside, more questions come to mind. How does the virus spread outdoors? Does wind blow the virus away? And why has Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a new order to wear masks when outdoors?
"Starting on Wednesday July 15, face coverings will also be required outdoors if you cannot maintain a physical distance," Gov. Brown stated last week. "Any time that you are outdoors, cannot maintain a physical distance of 6 feet, and you are with people you don't live with, please, please, please, put on your face covering."
In response to statewide guidelines, Bend Park and Recreation District recently updated its rules and regulations regarding COVID-19, now requiring all visitors of trails and parks to maintain a 6-foot distance from others outside the group they came with. If that's not possible, people 12 and older are required to wear a mask. For children ages 2 to 12, a mask is not required but still recommended.
"Sadly, we also experienced the first two deaths of Central Oregon residents from the virus, one in Crook County and one in Deschutes County. Our thoughts go out to the families and friends of these individuals and all those suffering due to impacts from the ongoing pandemic," wrote Joe Sluka, St. Charles Health System President and CEO, in a July 20 press release. "When virus numbers climb, we do become concerned about the long-term impact on our patients, caregivers and community. This is where your actions continue to make a huge difference in our success. We appreciate all those of you who are doing your part to stay home when possible, wear a mask when in public, wash your hands frequently and physically distance from those not in your immediate households."
- Gustavo Fring / Pexels
Outside, a main way the virus tends to spread outdoors is through wind, explained Dr. Tomislav Meštrovi at News Medical Life Sciences. Still, a light wind will weaken the virus, and although people within the area are potentially exposed, it's far less of a risk than being indoors with other people.
Coronavirus molecules don't tend to get carried very far in the wind, as stated in an article by Melissa Bronstein, director of infection prevention and control for Rochester Regional Health. Although wind may increase the distance covered by the virus, it won't stay in the air long, she explained. Additionally, humidity can help in slowing the travel of particles. Hotter weather appears to be safer, too; according to researchers from Harvard Medical School, MIT and other institutions, transmission of the virus has been proven to be reduced in average temperatures over about 77 degrees.
The virus transmits most when particles are trapped with poor ventilation and people are not following health guidelines, including wearing a mask and physically distancing, the World Health Organization has stated.
"We really do think that being indoors is where most of the transmission is occurring," wrote Shelly Miller, professor of environmental engineering who studies indoor air quality at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "And it's pretty rare now to see anything related to outbreaks from outdoor conditions." Specifically, the virus has been seen to transmit through air conditioning systems, says the World Health Organization. Since central air conditioning constantly recirculates the same inside air throughout a building and doesn't tend to use outside air because of the hot temperature, it can result in inadequate, unclean air.
When it comes to getting the virus, it's far safer to be outdoors versus indoors, stated Linsey Marr, an engineering professor and aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech in an article in The New York Times. "There's so much dilution that happens outdoors. As long as you're staying at least 6 feet apart, I think the risk is very low," she stated.
Since very light winds and air currents scatter virus particles, the chances of catching it from mere exposure to outdoor air is negligible. As Eugene Chudnovsky, a physicist at Lehman College and the City University of New York's Graduate Center, said, "A single virus will not make anyone sick; it will be immediately destroyed by the immune system. The belief is that one needs a few hundred to a few thousand of SARS-CoV-2 viruses to overwhelm the immune response."