We wait all year for summer in Whatcom County. It’s the light at the end of the long, rainy tunnel. We can go hiking in the Cascades, take to the seas in our kayaks and sailboats, enjoy sunny afternoons at the beach, and picnic with our friends and families. This year, however, things look a lot different. Even though the sun is still shining and the sky is still blue, the way we recreate outside has changed.

Limiting our time in popular locations can also help others enjoy the same place by reducing overcrowding. Photo by Todd Elsworth, courtesy City Of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department

COVID-19 has affected every aspect of our lives, including the way we play and explore outside. Just because we’re not indoors doesn’t mean we can’t be exposed to COVID-19. Despite the fact that outdoors is safer than indoors when it comes to spreading the virus, it’s still important to take precautions when spending time outside to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities. 

This doesn’t mean you can’t go outside. After all, visiting green spaces—whether that’s local parks or another natural environment—can benefit your health and psychological wellbeing. And we could all use a little bit of stress relief right now! 

Outdoor activities can be done right. “In general, being outside is relatively safer than being indoors when you’re in dispersed settings and not around large groups of people,” says Zac Doobovsky, a public health nurse and communicable disease investigator with the Whatcom County Health Department. “When outdoors, it’s still important to take a mask with you wherever you go; you don’t know if you’ll be in contact with other people or be able to get six feet away.”

It’s important to restrict outdoor gatherings to five or fewer people from outside your household. Photo by Todd Elsworth, courtesy City Of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department

While walking, running, and hiking can be great ways to support health and wellness, trails can still pose problems when it comes to maintaining physical distance. After all, if you’re rounding a bend on a path and are totally immersed in the sounds of nature, the smells of flowers, and the beautiful blue sky, you might not hear or notice a passerby coming the opposite way. That’s why it’s always a good idea to mask up and keep your distance. Wear your mask as you approach others and while passing them, making as much space as possible between you and another person. Remember, if you’re exercising and breathing heavily, stay more than six feet away from other people. 

Doobovsky also recommends trying to find less crowded spots to enjoy a walk or run (and maybe you’ll discover some off-the-the-beaten-track places in the process). “Find parks or different areas where you can get a lot of space away from people,” he recommends. “Whatcom Falls Park has some wide trails. Anywhere you can find your own space away from a crowd is a good bet.” If you notice a lot of cars or people at a trailhead, it’s probably best to find another spot. 

It’s still important to take a mask with you wherever you go, even outdoors. Photo by Todd Elsworth, courtesy City Of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department

“Most people are generally poor judges of distances. Even if you think you’re not within six feet of someone, you should still wear a mask,” Doobovsky says. On the beach with friends? Mask up! Walking back to your car? Mask on! Going to the restroom? You guessed it: You need your mask! It’s important to stay six feet away from people who aren’t in your household. For me, six feet is pretty hard to conceptualize, but think of it as the length of a pool noodle, two golf clubs, one-and-a-half mountain bikes, or two golden retrievers standing nose to tail (okay, that’s a cute one!).

Parks, beaches, and campgrounds carry a similar set of risks to running, walking, and hiking. It’s important to restrict outdoor gatherings to five or fewer people from outside your household, so try to limit socializing to once or twice a week. The less time spent around people, the less chance there is of spreading or catching COVID-19.

Outdoor activities can be done right and, in general, being outside is relatively safer than being indoors. Photo by Todd Elsworth, courtesy City Of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department

“If you go to a park and you’re a hundred yards away from someone, there should be no risk,” Doobovsky says. Trouble arises, he says, “When you’re forced to share items. If you go camping with a group of friends, it’s unlikely you won’t be close to each other, and you’ll probably have limited access to handwashing. There are some settings where it’s just not realistic to social distance, and I think that’s where you’re more at risk.” 

Of course, you should also stay home if you, or someone you live with, was exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19; even if you feel fine, you may unwittingly spread it. 

Summer can still be a time to enjoy the outdoors and all the benefits it offers. With a couple extra precautions, you may find yourself exploring a new, less-crowded beach or getting more creative about how you see friends and family from six feet apart. And though it may feel strange to cross paths with a stranger on the trail and not share friendly hellos, wearing a mask and keeping your distance tells other people you care about them and that you want them, and their loved ones, to feel healthy and happy in the beautiful place we all call home. 

All photos by Todd Elsworth,
courtesy of the City of Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department

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