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Studies conducted before omicron show that being outdoors significantly reduces your risk of coronavirus infection. A review of studies concluded that the chances of transmission indoors are almost 19 times higher than outdoors. And mena study of 64 college football games during the 2020 season involving 1,190 athletes, researchers at Texas A&M University found zero spread of COVID during play based on three post-game PCR tests over the course of a week – likely due to the outdoor setting and the short duration of close contact, experts say. (Of course, soccer games have been postponed this season due to COVID outbreaks, but the study authors believe players were more likely spreading it in locker rooms and other indoor shared spaces.)
This is because the outside airflow does a good job of dispersing pathogens.
But does omicron play by the same rules?
“From a viral point of view, there is no indication that omicron behaves differently [in outdoor settings],” said Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan who co-authored an editorial on football team research.
“This does not mean [transmission is] impossible if you’re crammed into a place that’s just some kind of open air and people are sharing food, kissing, or drinking. But if it’s a casual interaction outside, even if it’s relatively crowded, I’m comfortable not wearing a mask. And at this point in the pandemic, we need to find ways to do things that make sense to us. It’s nice to see people’s expressions and feel a sense of normalcy.”
And playing outside, Malani notes, is great for kids — building snow structures and sledding in parts of the country now shivering in winter temperatures.
Of course, omicron is the most transmissible variant to date. That, combined with the sheer volume of cases, could mean there could be more outdoor transmission cases, says Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of adult and pediatric infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine — and some people may want to mask up in certain outdoor situations. But that shouldn’t make you lose sight of the benefits of socializing outdoors, she adds.
“Being outside continues to provide another layer of protection due to ventilation,” says Weatherhead. (The other layers are vaccination, masking and physical distancing.)
“So the safest place you can be [with other people] always going to be outside,” she said.
If your own risk tolerance is low, some outdoor situations might call for a mask. Previous studies showed that the fewest cases of outside transmission almost always occurred during prolonged and close contact. For example, talking face to face with someone who is not masked and who is very, very close to you is risky no matter where you are, especially if it is for an extended period of time.
“It can happen outside,” says Dr. Don Milton, an infectious disease aerobiologist at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Still, he says, you have to be close to the infected person or downwind of them. “That gentle breeze outside is usually safer” than inside, he says. “Air movement [outdoors] is more random and the virus will not accumulate.”
And yes, that goes for omicron, he believes. While it makes sense that people would worry about having a more contagious variant outdoors, it’s likely that the current rise in cases has nothing to do with the spread outdoors.
Preliminary to research, including a small study from Milton’s lab, suggests that people infected with omicron do not exhale higher viral loads than people infected with delta. And vaccinated people probably carry fewer infectious virus particles than unvaccinated people.
So if you’re worried about not being able to distance yourself in a crowded outdoor situation with people whose vaccination status is unknown, put on a mask.
Just keep in mind that risk is a continuum.
“Slip on the ice or have an accident on the way [to an outdoor rendez-vous] is probably more likely than getting COVID out,” Malani says.
However, if you live in a cold place like her, you might want to leave your mask on for warmth! Not only does it keep your cheeks warm, but who wants to take off their gloves to deal with a mask in sub-freezing temperatures?
Sheila Mulrooney Eldred is a freelance health journalist in Minneapolis. She has written about COVID-19 for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Kaiser Health News, Medscape and The Washington Post. More than sheilaeldred.pressfolios.com. On Twitter: @milepostmedia.