Getting Outside Responsibly During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Last Updated: 3/23/2020
We've been fielding calls and questions from outdoor programs about getting outside while managing coronavirus concerns, so here are some quick ideas, resources, and reminders. Feel free to pass this information along to your programs and community, and let me know if there are additional resources which we should add to this article.
Basic Principle - Flatten The Curve: It's important that we all do our part to flatten the curve of contagion, to spread out the impact over a greater period of time to avoid overwhelming available healthcare capacity, as we've seen happen most recently in Italy.
I have seen no visual that better explains this than the models shown in this article. The following graphic also vividly highlights the importance that a single person can make in the exponential spread of coronavirus.
Please take a few minutes to review this basic concept before reading further. We all have a vital role to play in flattening the curve. Here is an article that shows models for the healthcare system capacity in different parts of the United States.
But, Isn't Getting Outside a Good Idea Right Now While Schools and Workplaces are Closed?
The benefits of the great outdoors are well-documented, and many studies (and common sense!) show that spending time outside is beneficial. It can boost our health, boost mental health, and boost immune systems. It helps us sleep and puts the wind in our sails to help us through challenging circumstances. All of these are very important - but there are some unique considerations and differences right now during this pandemic, and we are in a critical stage. Please consider if you need to be outside at all, and if so, how to do so responsibly. The impact you have is not just on yourself, it can be on entire communities.
1) If we travel in order to recreate, we can unknowingly spread contagion. Doctors in rural areas have begged people to consider the impact they can have on small communities, but local leadership can confuse economic health with public health. Moab, UT is really just a microcosm of this larger issue, which we've also seen with spring break on beaches in Florida and iconic destination parks across the country.
Compounding this matter, fees at many US National Parks are currently waived, despite strong objections from those concerned that this could stimulate reckless behavior, over-crowding, and endanger park staff and visitors - and more examples continue to come in all the time.
Note: Americans are uniquely susceptible to the cultural and cognitive biases that can contribute to this mindset, where freedom and independence are historically good things that our society celebrates. These traits do not serve us well when the needs of the larger society impinge on our perceived freedoms, freedoms on which the socio-political foundation of the nation was actually founded.
2) Adolescent brains do not manage their own risks very well, and young people are more at risk than we originally believed. Brain science shows that it's not that they under-estimate the risks -- it's that they're in a state of cognitive development where they need to test boundaries, and over-estimate the potential rewards. These forces are even stronger when in groups of their peers. While this is not a new issue, the new threats which coronavirus poses, and the risks which young people can pose to themselves (and those whom they come into contact with) is different in this current pandemic.
Also, "adolescence" in this brain science sense extends all the way to 24 years old or so!
Compounding this matter, recent data from the CDC show that young people are much more at risk from coronavirus than originally believed.
3) If a recreational injury occurs that requires medical care, you have compounded the larger problem. Rural areas do not have the capacity to absorb coronavirus cases as well as the normal caseload which they normally see. If you climb, ski, hike, or even drive to a remote area and are injured, you will expose search and rescue personnel to new risks, or you may not have the level of care you would normally assume to be available. You may find a hospital that's unable to serve you as they normally would, or jeopardize their staff if they do. We need to dial down our risk-taking mindsets to adapt to the rescue and medical resources that may be available, and not further burden a healthcare system that is already tenuous.
4) (Many) outdoor adventurers derive pleasure from being "on the edge," and being comfortable with hazards. While this may help us in our goals of first ascents in the mountains or courageous plunges down steep ski slopes, this need for exposure does not serve us or our community when it comes to the pandemic. There are beneficial risks associated with climbing and skiing, but there are no beneficial risks to coronavirus, nothing we can gain from being infected (other than the as-of-yet-unknown possibility of increased immunity once exposed).
Recommendations for Getting Outside Responsibly
1) Think about what you need from the outdoors right now - and be specific. People benefit in different ways - some need an elevated heart rate on a strenuous hike, while others need to see wildlife or scenery. Start by identifying what kind of needs you have right now.
2) Self-assess your own health: If you're not feeling well, or have any respiratory symptoms, don't expose others by going out.
If you're uncertain at all about your health, find another way to meet your needs for nature. Recent studies show that simply seeing birds from your home or office window benefits health, for example.
3) Assuming you're healthy, still operate as if you're not. Wash hands, maintain hygiene, and stay physically distanced as much as possible during your outing. Even though you may be "asymptomatic" (not showing any signs or symptoms) you can still infect those around you, and doctors do not yet fully know the extent of this incubation period for the virus.
Physical distancing is especially important when different parties encounter each other on the trail so give each other six feet or more of space. Note: I prefer the term "physical distancing" over "social distancing" since we can be physically distanced while still socially connected online, virtually, etc.
4) Keep group size very small - and don't bring groups or people together needlessly. If you're already living together, it's reasonable to hike together - but avoid bringing groups and separate families together. All it takes is one asymptomatic virus carrier to potentially spread contagion to the whole group, as mentioned above.
5) Be self-reliant with supplies. To minimize the spread of the virus, try to limit your contact to your own immediate area. For example, fill up on gas locally, and bring your own food on your trip rather than having to make multiple stops in different places. And of course, be aware that every time you touch a gas pump, open a store door, or hand money / credit cards back and forth, you should wash or sanitize your hands.
6) Be flexible and adapt your routines to match the situation. We are in unprecedented times and the habits, patterns, and routines that have served us well in the past may need to change for the time being. This is a chance to discover new places, and new ways of enjoying the outdoors, while doing so responsibly. You may discover the joy of "nearby nature" right in your own neighborhoods, for example.
Steve Smith Photo: Nearby Nature
Additional Resources on Getting Outdoors Responsibly During the Pandemic
Please note that this article provides general recommendations and considerations, not specific legal or medical advice. This situation continues to evolve rapidly, so you should consult health authorities for the latest information on the coronavirus pandemic, and make decisions that match your local environment and situation.