Coloradans who place a high value on fitness, exercise and outdoor recreation have been in a quandary since the outbreak of the coronavirus, wondering how to run, hike, ride bikes or ski without putting themselves at risk for exposure. On Friday, The Denver Post interviewed state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy for guidance. She has been with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for eight years and has been the state epidemiologist for three years.
How concerned are you about the potential for transmission of the COVID-19 virus in parks and on trails as people seek exercise for their physical and mental health? We’ve all seen images of people congregating in parking lots and at trailheads.
It’s a great point. Our concerns about transmission of this virus are really mostly when people are going to be closer together. If that is occurring in outdoor spaces, that is certainly concerning. We are very serious about social distancing and the orders that local jurisdictions and the governor’s office have issued. We know they are really important to try and protect people and save lives. We certainly know it’s important for people to exercise, but we want people to be doing that in a way that maintains social distancing.
Enjoy our outdoors but be responsible. This isn’t vacation time. By staying in your neighborhood or your region, you can help reduce the risk of transmission to our rural and gateway communities. #DoingMyPartCO #COVID19Colorado pic.twitter.com/L59LRWKDut
— Governor Jared Polis (@GovofCO) March 27, 2020
Are you saying that people are relatively safe if they are maintaining that six foot distancing out there?
Yes. I think if people are maintaining those social distancing spaces, it is safe to be outdoors. We want people to exercise. We know it is very important for people’s physical and mental health, but a crowded park, a crowded parking lot, is certainly a place where transmission could occur. So we encourage people to find ways to exercise outdoors that avoid crowds and situations where you are going to be less than six feet from other people.
We hear about this six-foot space a lot. It sounds like you are reasonably confident that if someone is more than six feet away from someone, even if they have the virus, they’re not going to be contagious.
I would say it’s low-risk, not zero-risk. We certainly know the closer you are, and as that period of (exposure) extends, the greater the risk is, but transiently passing by someone at a distance of greater than six feet would be considered low-risk. Six feet is chosen for a reason. We know that’s the distance that respiratory droplets can travel.
In addition to the distance you’re keeping from one person, it’s also thinking about how many people are present. If you are six feet from one person, that’s different from being six feet from 20 people. In general, we want the numbers of people that are close together to be quite small.
If someone is running or hiking on a single-track trail in a park or an open space and someone approaches from the other direction, is it sufficient to simply step aside to maintain that six feet? And what if someone coughs in an encounter like that?
Certainly coughing would be concerning, so if individuals are on a trail coughing, and your are in close proximity, that would certainly increase the risk of transmission. We would hope that individuals that are out getting exercise are generally feeling well. We know the risk of transmission for individuals that are symptomatic, but there is some small risk of transmission when individuals are asymptomatic as well — before they develop symptoms.
Running on a wide road instead of a narrow trail, especially if that is a popular trail, is a great thing to do.
How contagious is someone who has contracted the virus but is asymptomatic?
We know that the virus is spread — especially between people who aren’t touching the same surfaces — typically by coughing or sneezing. That’s how those respiratory droplets are projected into the air — another person can inhale those respiratory droplets. That means the risk of transmission is going to be much greater if someone is symptomatic, so we believe more transmission occurs from people who are symptomatic than from people who are asymptomatic.
The difference might be in a household or a close indoor setting where an individual could potentially touch their face and then touch surfaces and contaminate those surfaces. That’s different. That’s typically not going to happen as much hiking or biking on a trail. You’re not going to be sharing surfaces with an individual. That does get to the point of avoiding play structures, playgrounds, those sorts of settings. There is an opportunity for surfaces to be contaminated.
The governor has been very consistent about telling people they should get outside and exercise, that it’s important. Why do you and the governor consider that to be so important?
It’s about people’s physical and mental (health). Especially right now, it’s important for people to have those healthy outlets. Colorado in particular is a state that embraces an active lifestyle. We want Coloradans to maintain that active, healthy lifestyle they have during this difficult time.
One of the things the governor has suggested is that perhaps you go for a jog less often. Perhaps there is an alternative to going for a jog. Can you take an online class in your basement or living room? Are there other things you can do to decrease risk of exposure to other individuals? We want people to be able to do this — be outside and exercise — but also come up with strategies to maintain social distancing while continuing to be active.
Open spaces and parks tend to be magnets for people. Is it better to stay close to home and exercise in a neighborhood where there are two-lane streets with sidewalks on both sides so people can cross to the other side of the street, as opposed to recreating on trails?
Absolutely. Find those routes for your walks and runs and bike rides that are more likely to have fewer people on them. That’s a great alternative to going to a popular park. Another strategy is to go at less popular times of the day. In the spring, lots of folks are probably out midday when it’s warmest out, so instead consider going at alternate times when it’s not going to be quite so crowded.
Is there anything else you want people to know on this topic?
People should use their judgment and be smart, understand how serious this virus is and really follow those guidelines to keep themselves and the people around them healthy. At this point, we don’t feel there’s a need to close trails or limit people’s exposure to nature and exercise. But we all need to do our part so we don’t have to close trails or limit access to recreation in the state. These measures are serious, and they are about saving lives.