New COVID-19 Research Supports Time Spent Outdoors – How Will This Influence Local Parks and Recreation?

By Allison Colman | Posted on May 14, 2020

New Research blog 410

One of the most challenging things about navigating our way through the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has been the fact that this is a new virus not previously identified. With anything that is new, there is a lack of research, data, evidence and best practices available. And although it may feel like COVID-19 has been here for years, there has not been a lot of time dedicated to studying the virus or the disease it causes in this rapidly changing situation. Scientists, researchers, healthcare professionals, public health officials, and of course, park and recreation professionals have been making decisions with the limited information available.

As we work diligently to better understand the situation at hand, new research has emerged in a few areas. One of those areas has been data that demonstrates where outbreaks seem to be occurring and where transmission of the virus appears to be more likely. The research is pointing to some good news for parks and recreation, while also providing an opportunity for strengthening our advocacy efforts and assessing future implications and plans.

Although there are still many unknowns and questions that need to be answered, new research is pointing to a lower risk of transmission occurring in the outdoors. A recent blog by Erin S. Bromage, Ph.D., an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, has drawn some conclusions about the emerging research citing “any environment that is enclosed, with poor air circulation and high density of people, spells trouble.” Data shared in the blog post collected on outbreaks worldwide finds that outside of nursing homes, the largest outbreaks are from prisons, religious ceremonies and celebratory events, restaurants, workplaces, meat packing plants and business networking events. What do all these spaces have in common? According to Dr. Bromage, “they are indoors, with people closely situated, with lots of talking, singing, or yelling.” Additionally, these spaces are conducive to person-to-person or face-to-face contact for sustained periods of time where people are exposed to an infectious dosage of the virus.

A recent study (awaiting peer review) of 1,245 COVID-19 cases in China found that 90 percent of all transmission events were from homes, workplaces, public transport, social gatherings or restaurants, and only two cases (.03% of traced infections) could be attributed to outdoor transmission. The authors of the study concluded that identified outbreaks of three or more cases occurred in an indoor environment, confirming that sharing indoor spaces is a major transmission and infection risk. There are many reasons cited for this, including poor air quality and ventilation in indoor spaces, crowding indoors, and unhygienic conditions, especially in dense urban areas. This study only identified one single outbreak in an outdoor environment, involving only two cases, pointing to significantly lower rates of transmission occurring outdoors and reinforcing the decision to keep parks and green spaces open — especially in dense, urban environments when they allow for safe, physically distant use.

In addition to strengthening the argument for continued access to parks, trails and open spaces in this highly uncertain and anxiety-ridden time, the study and other emerging research offers some food for thought for park and recreation professionals as they make decisions about reactivating spaces, facilities, programs and park infrastructure now and in the future. For example, if we anticipate that we are several months away from a widely accessible vaccine, park and recreation professionals may need to be thinking about changing the structure and settings of future programs, events and activities. Some of these considerations may be:

  • Reopening outdoor parks, trails and open spaces that allow for physical distancing prior to reopening indoor spaces
  • Moving physical activity and enrichment programs from indoor settings to outdoor settings (e.g. holding yoga, meditation or art classes in parks)
  • Restructuring summer camps to spend more time outdoors or transitioning to drop in programming in outdoor parks and public spaces
  • Creating more cooling centers and hygiene stations in outdoor settings to prevent heat-related illness and support public health over summer
  • Closing down streets to allow for more outdoor activities and space to physically distance
  • Looking at outdoor venues rather than indoor spaces when planning community events
  • Investing in new outdoor spaces and infrastructure that supports health and well-being like connected trail systems, community gardens, farmers markets, small pop-up sized parks, etc.

Parks and recreation, and the professionals who dedicate their lives to the profession, are essential. In times of crisis, the services and infrastructure managed by parks and recreation are necessary for maintaining the health and well-being of the public. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, parks, trails and open spaces have served as vital places for communities to recreate, rejuvenate and spend time as a family. As the weather warms, people grow antsy from being indoors, and more research supports a lower risk of transmission outdoors, parks and open spaces will continue to soar in popularity and use, perhaps more so than ever before. Agencies will need to be prepared to manage this use – a challenge when budgets are on the chopping block.

According to NRPA’s latest Park Snapshot survey, 56 percent of park and recreation agencies are facing cuts to their current fiscal year budget in the range of 10-19 percent, with 46 percent of agencies reporting that they are facing cuts next year. This data that speaks to the outdoors offering safe opportunities for physical and mental health, along with data demonstrating the increased use and challenges in maintaining these spaces, can be used to build and strengthen advocacy efforts that help protect budgets, secure staffing to manage these spaces, and invest in capital projects that ensure all people have equitable access to quality parks and recreation and the many health, social and environmental benefits they provide.

It’s important to note that there are still risks outdoors, as the virus is still believed to be spread through close contact in the form of respiratory droplets and viral particles that can hang in the air or fall onto surfaces, so physical distancing and taking other protective measures, including handwashing, wearing face coverings and covering coughs and sneezes, remain paramount to reducing the risk of spread.

For more information about NRPA’s response to COVID-19, as well as available resources for park and recreation professionals, please see our Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) webpage.

Allison Colman is NRPA’s Director of Health.