Chance of contracting COVID-19 while out for a spring walk 'incredibly small', Manitoba researchers say

The threat of contracting COVID-19 can make outings feel a bit scary these days, but researchers say that shouldn't stop you from heading out on a walk.

Researchers at University of Manitoba say you're unlikely to catch COVID-19 by passing someone on the sidewalk

Scientists and public health authorities say the risk of COVID-19 on sidewalks is "incredibly small." (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The threat of contracting COVID-19 can make outings feel a bit scary these days, but researchers say that shouldn't stop you from heading out on a walk.

Sherry Charbonneau has been taking her baby granddaughter out in the stroller, along with her daughter, Selena Constans, every week during the pandemic. 

The mother-daughter duo has noticed the recent warm weather is attracting more people onto Winnipeg's sidewalks. 

"It's hard to navigate safely and keep up the social distancing," said Constans. "I'd like to honour it, but it's just hard with the increased traffic."

Sherry Charbonneau and her daughter Selena Constans say more people are on the sidewalks during the warm springtime weather, making it harder to keep their distance from others. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Charbonneau admits that sometimes makes her a little nervous. 

"Especially with the narrow walkways over the bridge," said Charbonneau, pointing to the span that connects the Osborne Village to downtown. 

"You can only walk single-file. So if you see people coming, you're like 'okay, get right to the side'."

Risk 'incredibly small': microbiologist

Fortunately, those types of close encounters probably aren't anything to worry about, according to microbiologist Kevin Coombs.

The University of Manitoba professor told CBC News the odds of getting the virus are directly linked to the length of exposure to someone who's infected. He said the second or two it takes to pass someone on the sidewalk, probably isn't enough to catch their germs. 

"I won't say that the chance is zero, but it is incredibly small," Coombs said. 

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"If someone is exhaling once or twice while they're passing you — that's quite a bit different than if they're sitting down next to you, having a discussion, and you're breathing on each other for half an hour," Coombs said. 

University of Manitoba microbiologist Kevin Coombs says the risk of contracting COVID-19 while out on a walk is "negligible." (Kevin Coombs)

Coombs said even joggers, breathing heavily, and cyclists zipping by on bikes are unlikely to spread the virus.

"There is a theoretical risk, but it's incredibly small," he said.

His colleague, Andrew Halayko agrees. The University of Manitoba physiology professor and Canada Research Chair specializes in respiratory illness and environmental pathogens.

"They would have to be sneezing or coughing, right as they passed you," Halayko said. 

"You'd have to be very, very unlucky," he added with a chuckle.

Halayko said the risk of contracting COVID-19 outdoors is minute, compared to the risk of exposure indoors. He said the virus would disperse in the breeze, while the tiny nanodroplets that hold the pathogen would quickly evaporate.

'Every little thing can help'

Some cities, such as Montreal, have been expanding their sidewalks or making them one-way. The urban hub — considered one of the epicentres of Canada's COVID-19 outbreak — also shut down a busy bridge, allowing access only to pedestrians and cyclists.

The City of Winnipeg is reviewing measures being taken in other Canadian municipalities, including sidewalk widening, a spokesperson told CBC News on Monday evening. 

Coombs said while "every little thing can help," Winnipeggers shouldn't fret if their city hasn't matched those measures so far. 

He said if the path in your neighbourhood is narrow, it's probably safer to hold your course than step out into the street.

"Do you want to be hit by a car or run the risk of running into someone who's infected?" he asked, with a wry grin.  "Weigh your chances."

Still, Coombs advises keeping your distance as much as possible. If you're out for a stroll with someone you don't live with, for example, he recommends enjoying each other's company while staying two metres apart.

WATCH | Scientists say coronavirus risk on sidewalks is negligible:

Take a walk

2 years ago
Duration 2:28
Researchers at University of Manitoba say it's extremely unlikely to catch the virus during the 1-2 seconds it takes to pass someone on a sidewalk.


Emily Brass is a journalist at CBC Manitoba and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, U.K.


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