Is It Safe to Go Outside During the COVID-19 Outbreak?

Here’s what to look out for.

By Michael Bohl, MD, MPH
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UPDATE: This article has been updated with new information on September 12, 2020, 6:00 a.m.

There’s a lot of talk about needing to stay indoors to help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. Social distancing is being enforced, you have to wear a face covering in public, many businesses are closed or opened at a limited capacity, and the highways are lined with signs that say, “stay home and save lives.” Even with the concern of the virus, staying inside can seem like a pretty daunting task. Is it safe to go outside? How do you get fresh air? What if you need food? Can you go outside at all? 

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There are endless questions regarding what is safe to do and what is not, and with more being learned about the virus every day, it can be hard to track down the right answers. Hopefully this helps you cut through the clutter, so you can learn what you can do and what is advised against during this time of crisis. 

What Does Social Distancing Mean? 

The media uses a lot of different terms to describe what you should be doing which can make things confusing. Isolation, quarantine, self-quarantine, shelter-in-place, social distancing are just some of the terms showing up in the media on a regular basis. Often, they are used interchangeably — but they really shouldn’t be. Here’s a quick rundown of what each term means:

Isolation: This is a public health measure used to prevent the spread of disease. It involves separating a person who is already infected with the disease from the rest of society.

Quarantine: Like isolation, this is a public health measure used to prevent the spread of disease. However, it involves separating a person who has been exposed to the disease from the rest of society. It is uncertain whether they actually have the disease or not.

Self-quarantine: The idea behind self-quarantine is the same as quarantine, but it is not mandated. If you think you have been exposed to the disease, it is recommended that you self-quarantine yourself to prevent possibly spreading the disease.

Shelter in place:  A shelter-in-place order requires people to stay home except for urgent or emergency concerns. Whereas “isolation” is used for infected people and “quarantine” is used for exposed people, shelter-in-place is required of everyone.

Social distancing: Social distancing doesn’t necessarily require you to stay in one place — just to stay away from other people. It involves avoiding crowds and remaining at least six feet away from others.

So, Can I Go Outside? 

If you are under isolation or quarantine, the simple answer is that you should not leave your mandated confines except for in an emergency. If you are ordered to shelter in place you should really only be leaving your house for essential reasons such as buying food if you run out or a medical emergency. 

However, if you are self-quarantined or are just trying to follow along with calls to practice social distancing and “flatten the curve,” there are a couple of things for you to consider.

The first thing to think about when deciding whether to go outside, is keeping yourself healthy. Just being outside, in and of itself, is not dangerous. What you do need to be careful of are the people you come into contact with and the things you touch. SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads from person-to-person. This means that coming into contact with other people is one possible way for you to get the disease. As a result, it is recommended that you stay at least 6 feet away from other people at all times.

Coronaviruses, in general, are also able to survive outside of the body. Based on a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the NIH estimates that SARS-CoV-2 can live on copper for up to four hours, on cardboard for up to 24 hours, and on plastic and stainless steel for 48 to 72 hours. This means that, if an infected person touches a doorknob, the virus could still be present on the doorknob two to three days later. The virus can also linger in the air after an infected person has left a room, but it is unclear for how long or in what quantity this occurs.

So, what does this mean for you? As long as you are staying away from other people, it is safe to go outside, it is safe to go for a walk, and it is safe to enjoy a rooftop or a park. However, be careful what you touch. If you are touching doorknobs, or elevator buttons, or anything else, even if nobody else is around, make sure to thoroughly wash your hands as soon as possible (and before touching your face).

The second thing you need to think about before going outside is keeping other people healthy. COVID-19 has proven itself to be very effective at spreading. Additionally, approximately 80% of people experience milder symptoms and it is possible to spread the virus before symptoms even show up. This means you could be infected and not even know it, which also means you could be spreading the virus to other people when you go outside. Right now, it is estimated that, on average, every one person infected will pass it on to two or three other people.

This is the reason why there are so many calls for people to stay at home, self-quarantine, or shelter-in-place. By limiting your interactions with the outside world, you are potentially stopping the spread of the disease. By staying home, you are helping to “flatten the curve” so the healthcare system does not get overwhelmed. 

If you have no symptoms and want to go outside, you can — just be careful about what you touch, who you’re with, and keep distance between yourself and others. However, if you want to do everything you can to help society and stop coronavirus from spreading, the best option for right now is to stay home.

Related:

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COVID-19 Quiz: What's Your Risk Level? 

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Article written by Michael Bohl, MD, MPH