White Coat, Black Art·The Dose

How safe are my favourite summer activities?

We're all anxious to enjoy the warmer weather, and along with that usually comes drinks on the patio and dips in the pool. But what are the risks during a pandemic? Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta joins Dr. Brian Goldman to weigh in on the safety of our favourite summer activities.

From swimming to backyard parties or a pickup soccer game, The Dose weighs the risks

Chlorine helps make pools safer, as long as your splashing around within your bubble. (Aaron Favila/Associated Press)

Originally published on June 4, 2020. 

Summer has arrived. After months of being cooped up inside, you may be desperate to get to a cottage, a campground or a friend's backyard. 

But infectious disease experts have been reminding us that we can't afford to let our guard down, even as businesses and parks reopen and friends and family pressure us to expand our social bubbles.

Dr.  Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, spoke to Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC Podcast The Dose.

Saxinger breaks down what we know about how much risk may be involved with your favourite summertime activities. 

Hosting friends in your backyard

We have a brand new deck at my place. How risky is it to invite people over? 

Everyone is just hungry for social contact and I think it is possible to manage things to reduce risk. People have different risk tolerance, but we should try to set a floor of basic principles, and I think some of the basic principles people might consider, based on an evolving understanding of the disease, is that one- to two-metre distance. So if your deck is nice and big, you can spread yourself out a lot.

And then the other thing that I noticed from looking at outbreak data is that meal sharing is a bit of a potential issue and that might just be because people are sharing high-touch surfaces; buffets are disaster with handles being touched and stuff.

So if you give some critical thought to how you're sharing foods or refreshments that might actually provide some additional reassurance. If it's family units, maybe people should be meeting for a picnic in the park instead of a shared barbecue where everyone's handling the same stuff and everyone brings their own picnic goods. 

If you're actually hosting people, don't have common serving bowls; maybe have individualized pre-plated things so that people aren't having to handle and touch the same utensils and dishes.

Public health directives vary depending on where you are in the country, but how do we decide how many people to have over?

The issue is that however many households you bring together your de facto mixing all the members of that household in that time and space. So rather than saying, 'Hey, I want to have a thing and just so I don't have to do all this more than once, I'll have a whole bunch of different people.' I think you need to look at the number of household bubbles that you're mixing. 

If you do plan an outdoor gatherings at home, keep numbers low enough to ensure chairs are spaced at least two metres apart. (Shutterstock/Artazum)

How about wearing masks at that gathering on the deck?

That one is the most loaded one. My personal read of the current evidence is that I don't think that if you're distancing, and you're outside, masks are likely to add much. If you are in closer quarters — at least intermittently — inside, it might be worthwhile to consider masks for that setting. I would stick with distancing and hand hygiene and being outside as a reasonable first line of defence.

What if my guests need to use the washroom?

But if people are going to be going into the house, they should do so individually, and they should practise good hand hygiene before and after using the toilet. And … after everyone leaves you clean the high-touch surfaces like plates and doorknobs and faucet handles. I think that it's reasonable for them to use the bathroom, and it's potentially unreasonable to say no if you've had them over — unless you have a highly treed yard.

Diners wait for service at a reopened restaurant patio in Vancouver. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

How about drinks on a restaurant patio with friends?

I feel for restaurants who need some customers but I still think you could all just pick up takeout separately and meet in a park. Ultimately my answer also might depend on where you are because if your community has really good testing and really low rates, then then I think it is a different conversation.

Swimming and playing sports

What about swimming in lakes and pools?

I haven't seen any suggestion that the act of swimming confers risk. I think one thing that struck me when I was thinking about distancing is that if you're with your own household members, you don't have to distance in the water. If you're with other people, the interactions in the water — especially among kids — might involve a lot of jumping around, popping up in and out of the water and spluttering… The water itself will dilute out any nasal or saliva-based virus that may be emitted by someone who doesn't know they're sick yet.

I think that you'd probably want to think around how you can plan so that you don't have to go into a shared change space. 

]What if my kid wants to play basketball or soccer?

I think the sports issue is actually pretty thorny one. And there's some things about sports that are a little different because, although a lot of them are outdoors, there might be a shared object. So basketball, you're passing things hand to hand. I think pretty much all sports there is this element of crashing into each other face-to-face and forceful exhalation, which might be a risk for respiratory droplets. 

And so some of the things that have been discussed, until we can figure out more about the transmission risk in team sports, would be — rather than having the full team thing — maybe consider doing drills instead. I certainly have seen people doing pickup sports on the local basketball courts and I flinch a little bit because I think that it is different than just hanging around outside. I think the contact is closer and I think that there is potentially more transmission risk if someone is infected and not yet aware of it. 

People planning a trip to the cottage should consider whether or not it'll mean travelling from a high-risk area to a low-risk area, and if so, plan to stick to their bubble once there. (Canadian Press)

Going to the cottage or camping

Suppose you plan to spend time at a cottage? What do you need to consider?

Some provinces have basically pulled up the drawbridge, and others are just saying only necessary travel. And if either your cottage or you are in a higher-risk area and you're travelling back and forth between them, you're putting the lower-risk area at risk. 

If you're in [a location where] there's still a lot of active transmission, and you're travelling to a community that has had no cases, I'm a little concerned about that because I think there's a possibility you might be starting to equalize the risk. On the other hand, for instance, if you're in [an area with low transmission] and your cottage is at a lake nearby, and neither [where you live] nor the other community has much by way of community transmission right now, I think that that's a different scenario.

When we talk about a cottage I think a lot of people may assume that we're talking about going to your own cottage, but most people don't do that. You know people go to rental properties for very short terms. Is that a greater risk?

I think it depends a little bit on the physical layout. From what we know of the virus, it really is mostly a person-to-person thing not a space-to-person thing, with the exception of those high-touch surfaces that we worry about. But I think rental spaces can be adequately cleaned, and when you come in, you could probably do an extra cleaning of high-touch surfaces if you're not sure, and when you leave do the same thing. As long as you can manage the space and have it set up so that you don't have to transgress physical distancing boundaries to provision yourself, I don't see a huge difference between those scenarios.  

As long as you're sharing a tent with people in your own household, and positioning your site well away from others, camping should be a go this summer. (Wallis Snowdon/CBC)

Now, pitching a tent — is that the safest thing to do?

If it's a household-based expedition I don't think I perceive any particular excess risk. At a lot of camp sites you can … distance pretty effectively, so I would be optimistic that camping should be on the table, but you have to think about how many households you're mixing and what kind of proximity.

What if you want to visit family out of province in your family car that's your own protective bubble. When you drive across the provincial border you're going to have to be prepared for some serious isolation, won't you?

So things you can do would be plan your trip to minimize contact along the way … using hygiene and distancing at all the stops. And then when you get there you have to think about the circumstances where you interact with your relatives, like maximizing the safety by doing more outdoors things and not having big indoor family gatherings. Try to minimize your interaction within the community, especially if you're coming from a place that might be a higher risk community setting than the place you're going to. I think people should just have a thought about, but what if, what if along the way one of us picked up infection and was incubating it when we went to visit grandma, right?


Summer often means weddings. If you get an invitation, what are you looking for? I think the first thing that comes to my mind is how big the gathering is going to be. Do we have a right to ask?

Yes, I think you do. It's clear that gatherings of more than 50 people are a bad idea. And the smaller the better. Again in terms of just the number of potential households mixed if there is a spreading event, [it's important to consider] the way that people interact at the event and how the food is served —if it's pre-plated versus buffet. I would say a big no to buffets right now. And you know, the receiving line; I'm sorry but receiving line seems like a spectacularly terrible idea. So there's a lot of things that would be you know expected in a wedding that people are going to have to be a little more creative about, but that doesn't mean that you can't have a group of your close friends and family come together for you.


Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Dawna Dingwall and Nicole Ireland.