Note: Post updated July 6, 2020
As the nation begins to reopen, parents are understandably concerned about the risks to their children of contracting COVID-19 in parks and playgrounds.
It’s a reasonable fear. We know that the coronavirus spreads when people cough, sneeze or just talk.
Does this mean children should stay away from playgrounds?
Not necessarily say epidemiologists and the Centers for Disease Control. “Carefully consider use of playgrounds, and help children follow guidelines,” counsels the CDC. In areas where the virus is actively spreading, it’s difficult to keep children safe in a playground because maintaining social distance can be all but impossible and disinfecting equipment is a challenge. “The virus that causes COVID-19 can spread when young children touch contaminated objects, and then touch their eyes, nose, or mouth,” the CDC says.
Though contact transmission (fomites in the medical parlance) has caused people to become sick, it is the least common way to become infected. The virus may linger for up to two or three days on metal and plastic, but the amount of infectious virus decreases over time and especially when also exposed to sunlight and warm temperatures.
“Our projections suggest warmer temperature and moderate outdoor ultraviolet exposure may offer a modest reduction in transmission,” say the authors of the latest study. “We find a strong association between temperatures above 25°C [77°F] and reduced transmission rates.”
Another study found that as the temperature rises from about 60 degrees, the number of infections decreases. “Per the present analysis, the strong environmental factor which could retard the growth rate of infection is temperature,” the authors of that study conclude.
It’s also know that children are far less susceptible to contracting COVID-19, and when they do become infected, their symptoms are generally less severe. Their rate of hospitalization is a tiny fraction of those for adults.
“Children overall are doing much better and are less sick than adults,” says Samuel Dominguez, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora.
Why isn’t known. “I don’t know if that is really a biological or immunological phenomenon or if it’s an exposure phenomenon,” he added.
That’s encouraged some parents to schedule play dates and even to head to the playground during low use times, wiping down equipment before it’s used.
A pediatrician with the Avera Medical Group recommends “using hand sanitizer while [children] are playing on the equipment and washing their hands well when they are done.”
The bigger challenge for parents is ensuring social distance. Instead of telling kids to stay 6 feet apart, Dr. Shari Eich says, “Telling them that they shouldn’t be close enough to touch another child is more realistic.”
Beyond the playground, parks are safe and offer plenty of opportunities for kids. Scrambling over logs, swinging from low hanging branches and rolling down hills can mimic the experience of an adventure playground. Walking, running or bicycling are all safe activities.
Water play is also safe, says the CDC. “There is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread to people through the water used in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds. Proper operation and disinfection of pools, hot tubs, and water playgrounds should kill the virus that causes COVID-19,” the agency says.
This summer isn’t going to be like any other. But by exercising caution and with a dose of common sense we can all still experience a fun summer.
Image of children at the beach by Ulrike Mai