COVID-19: How to Keep Safe as Lockdowns Lift and the Weather Warms


Despite lockdowns lifting and the weather warming, COVID-19 still poses the same risk to our health. But knowing the science of how to stay safe could help keep infection rates down. Photo: nycshooter/ iStock Unreleased via Getty Images

As lockdowns lift and the weather warms, it’s fair to experience FOGO — fear of going out. Without a treatment or vaccine, COVID-19 poses the same risk to our health as it did when we started staying home to stay safe, 10-plus weeks ago.

And if you’re hoping the warmer weather will weaken or slow the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the respiratory illness, think again. When Canadian researchers looked at outbreaks in 144 countries, they found that latitude and local temperature had no effect on spread. However, staying away from each other did.

Restricting large gatherings, closing schools and social distancing measures were “strongly associated with reduced epidemic growth,” according to their findings. In other words — don’t cram into public spaces like crowds in Toronto did at the city’s Trinity Bellwoods Park last weekend.

Here’s the science behind why physical distancing and other measures work — and why it’s so important to keep them up as the weather warms.

Distance Matters

We’ve heard a lot about respiratory droplets over the past months. They are the vehicle by which viruses travel and we project them when we cough and sneeze but also as we talk and laugh — and even when we sing, as evidenced by a choir practice in Washington State early in the pandemic that left 52 out of 122 members infected with the novel coronavirus and two dead.

Experts agree that maintaining a six-feet, or two-metre distance helps keep us from being hit by others’ droplets. But you may want to take an extra step or so, according to a study released in April by Western University in London, Ont.

Researchers from the Mechanical and Materials Engineering department developed a cough chamber to see just how far “explosive airflow” could travel and found droplets reach six feet in a matter of three seconds, and continue travelling to at least eight feet.

Masking the Problem

Keeping respiratory droplets to ourselves has never been more important. While coughing and sneezing into our elbow has become courtesy, and common place, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) also says a person wearing a non-medical mask or face covering can reduce the spread of his or her own infectious respiratory droplets, and that we should mask up whenever and wherever it’s not possible to consistently maintain a 2-metre physical distance from others.

It’s an awkward part of our new normal, true, but worth it if we consider modelling from the University of California, Berkeley. Scientists say that if 80 per cent of Americans were to wear masks and continue to social distance after lockdown, the U.S. death toll from COVID-19 could be reduced by half, and the virus could subsequently be eliminated. Incidentally, when the mask adoption rate was reduced to only 50 per cent the measure showed little effect on reducing transmission or deaths.

Imagine the impact, then, to Canadian COVID numbers if we all keep our masks on as we head out to (responsibly) enjoy the warmer weather. And if you’re worried about a weird tan line, that’s the beauty of quarantine — no one will see it.

Although outdoor and well-ventilated spaces are considered safer, the SARS-CoV-2 virus was found to remain “viable” and “infectious” for at least three hours when suspended in a fine mist in a lab, with real-world conditions likely reducing the time to half an hour, researchers said. But just this week, a group of experts noted that some homemade masks may be as effective as surgical masks at filtering the virus. They are calling for universal masking as one of the ways to reduce COVID-19 transmission.

It’s in Our Hands

All that said, washing our hands thoroughly and often remains the No. 1 piece of advice from experts for protecting against COVID-19 and preventing its spread.

Hand hygiene is so important because touching surfaces and then touching our eyes, mouth, or nose before washing our hands is the second most common way we expose ourselves to viruses.

Then consider the results from a study published by The New England Journal of Medicine that showed SARS-CoV-2 can survive on plastic for as long as 72 hours; on stainless steel for as long as 48 hours; on cardboard for nearly eight hours; and on copper for four hours. That’s something to keep in mind before heading out to a public place, touching different surfaces while basking in the sun.

And if you need more motivation to lather up, a study from 2015 — there aren’t a lot on the subject, but that will likely change — found that, on average, participants touched their faces 23 times in an hour. And, here’s the clincher, 44 per cent of the time it involved contact with a mucous membrane i.e., mouth (36 per cent), nose (31 per cent), eyes (27 per cent), or all three (6 per cent).

But the good news is, coronaviruses are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill. PHAC says an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is only necessary when soap and water are not available. (And you can use regular household cleaners on high-touch surfaces like door handles and toilet flush levers.)

What You Don’t Know

To help prevent the spread of COVID-19, health officials also stress eschewing the call of the wild and staying home during the nice weather if you feel ill. PHAC says the most commonly reported symptoms from the respiratory illness include cough (73 per cent), headache (55 per cent), weakness (53 per cent) and fever (46 per cent).

But we also know that there can be no signs.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about a third of coronavirus infections are asymptomatic. And the agency also estimates that 40 per cent of transmission is occurring before people even feel sick.

With just over 85,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Canada, that leaves more than 99 per cent of us with the potential to get it and spread it — and in some cases, without even knowing it.

So as we shrug off lockdown, health officials urge a ‘keep calm but carry on the vigilance’ approach. In the words of B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, “A summer for us all to remember to be kind, to be calm and to be safe.”