Know the risks before you make your summer plans

Renting a cottage? Going to the beach? Having a few friends over for a barbecue? Disease experts break down the risks and rewards of popular summer activities.

Experts break down what's safe and what's not this year

Rustic or rough camping is safer than campground or car camping, according to health experts. Shared washrooms make it harder to avoid exposure to COVID-19. (Getty Images)

Plan your summer, but take precautions.

That's the message from a trio of experts asked for their two cents on some popular summer activities, and whether they're worth the risk this year.

Earl Brown is an emeritus professor of virology at University of Ottawa.

Melissa Brouwers is a health services researcher and director of the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa.

Colin Furness is an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto.

Experts advise bringing disinfecting wipes to that rented cottage this summer. (Submitted by Christine Brown)

Renting a cottage

"If the premises have been empty for at least three days then you're in the clear," Furness said. But what about heading into town for supplies? "Plan to minimize contact. Don't all four or six of you all go stumbling into the grocery store."

"The virus lives on hard surfaces like fridges and countertops for several days," Brown said. "The toilet is a questionable area ... so swab down the toilet seat and handle.... You can't assume that they're all done when you show up to a rental."

Dockside, "swab the throttle handle on the motor of the boat," he advised. "Full sun will sterilize the virus … in a day or two."


Generally, beaches get the OK. But there are still a few key considerations: "Who's in your party? Are you bringing Grandma? Is there a way that you can spread out on the beach so that you're maintaining physical distancing?" Brouwers asked.

Then there are the public washrooms. "Are they cleaning in between patrons ... or is it a traditional public washroom where it's cleaned every once in a while but it's not monitored?"

Beaches are generally safe, but watch out for those public washrooms. (Submitted)

Swimming is less of a concern, Furness said.

"The virus can survive in water, but really, water is not your risk. It is the crowding," he said. "Kids love to shriek with delight. Kids get asymptomatic COVID, and when they're shrieking they're spewing."

His best advice? "Do some homework to find a beach that is not so crowded."

Swimming pools

Like swimming at the beach, the pools themselves are relatively safe

"Chlorine will kill everything that's in there, but it doesn't do it right away," Furness said. "You have to really imagine about 15 minutes for chlorine to go to work."

Handrails and patio furniture should be safe, as long as they're outdoors. "Anything that's in the sun is going to be nice and disinfected," Furness said.

Chlorine helps disinfect the water, but be mindful of other surfaces around the pool. (Aaron Favila/Associated Press)

Even hot tubs are OK, as long as it's just your family and you swab the control panel.

"Viruses die on surfaces through a process called thermal inactivation. It's highly temperature dependent," Brown said. "Often [hot tubs] have some chlorination, so that's a disinfectant. It will kill any virus."


It depends what kind of camping you're doing.

"There are no shared facilities if you're sleeping rough," Furness pointed out. "But car camping? That's actually pretty cheek-by-jowl. The biggest worry is the bathrooms where even on a good day the hygiene is really grim."

"With wilderness camping you've got your own privy hole in the ground," Brown added. "But if you're … sharing washroom facilities? Leave the stalls using your elbows and your knees and not touching handles."

Wilderness camping out under the stars, far away from COVID-19. (Submitted by Dianne Whelan. )

Brouwers agrees that campsite bathrooms are the sticking point. "If you have higher-risk kids or [immunocompromised] people in your family, is it worth the risk?" 

Brown also advises campers to be aware of airborne exposure, even in the great outdoors. "If you're around a campfire or picnic table … use airflow to your advantage. Don't situate yourself right downstream from people."


Family barbecues are fine, Brouwers said. "The challenge is when you bring people into the bubble, it becomes increasingly higher risk." 

She proposes the following questions: "Can physical distancing be maintained? Who are the people? Are they older, more vulnerable? Are people reaching their hands into common bowls? How will people use the washroom?"

Keep the barbecues for family only, the experts advise. (Cookie Studio/Shutterstock)

"I love the idea of physically distant barbecues. From a mental health standpoint, I think it's gold," Furness added. But the more people you invite, the higher the risk. "You turn your back and guess what's happening? They're mingling."

Brown takes a harder line. "Five people from one family is very different than five individuals from five different families," he warned. "Long periods in close contact? The risk of infection goes way, way up."


In Ontario, they're still closed. But when they do reopen, should you go? For Furness, that's a hard pass.

"I don't think I would be willing to go to a patio or restaurant this summer," he said. "Eating in a restaurant is a very intimate experience. It's been compared by one author I've read to having unprotected sex with someone you don't know. Someone has handled your food. Someone has handled your plates. Multiple people have had their hands on the stuff that then goes into your body."


Planes, trains or Greyhound buses? Furness is taking a pass on those, too.

"The things that put you at greatest risk are shared air and time of exposure. In a bus or even a train you've got tons of both. And you can't just jump off. So you're quite vulnerable."

The shared air inside an intercity bus heightens the risk of transmission. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)


"You want to think about high-touch surfaces," Brown advised. "Everybody comes in and flicks the switch. They push the plunger on the toilet. They use the night table. They should be swabbed down, but if they're not, I guess you can swab down them yourself."

Brown is less concerned about air quality in hotels. "In a circulating system in a hotel it's gone through ductwork. It's been diluted, so it's very unlikely you're going to have a problem with recirculating air."

Before booking a room, "find out how they're managing the COVID-19 risks," Brouwers said. "What are their cleaning rituals? There are new people coming all the time. How do they manage physical distancing?"

Summer sports

Brown worries about close-contact sports. "You want to be aware of … active breathing or exhaling in people's faces."

"It depends on the skill of the group," Furness said. "Skilled volleyball where there's spiking and defending? That's close quarters even for outside.... Soccer is a lot safer because you're kicking the ball instead of handling it."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now