Photograph by Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images
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A child wears a mask on Coney Island shortly after New York City opened some beaches in late May, but with no swimming allowed.

Photograph by Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images

Pools? Movies? Restaurants? How parents can give kids a safe summer

Public health experts weigh in on how to navigate summertime activities for children.

Kristy Cruz and her husband just broke the news to the younger of their three children—16, 12, and 10—that a large family gathering planned for the Florida Keys wouldn’t be happening after all. Between questions over how well the destination facilities could be kept clean, to concerns for older family members’ health, Cruz says it just seemed more prudent to stay closer to home.

“We’re military, so they were upset about not getting to see their extended family and cousins, and they had so many questions about what we would get to do this summer,” says Cruz, who lives in Maryland. “We told them that we’d still try to go out and eat and do a lot of outdoor things—go to the lake, float on the river, stay in a cabin or camp. If it’s something we can do safely, we’ll still try to do it with them.” (Get ideas for keeping kids safe outside.)

Like many other plans disrupted by COVID-19, summertime activities are no exception. Even now, as states begin phased reopenings of restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, outdoor concert venues, and other public spaces like parks and beaches, uncertainty over what’s possible—or what’s safe—makes summer fun tough to plan. (Find out if flushing a public toilet could really spread COVID-19.)

And as families watch people start to go out more often, it’s extremely tempting to give in to the notion that the virus is no longer a threat.

“We desperately want to reconvene, and we’re eager to hug, shake hands, be in close quarters with one another again,” says physician Marissa Levine, director of the Center for Leadership in Public Health Practice at the University of South Florida. “But nothing’s changed with regard to the virus. It’s still in our communities, and there’s no effective treatment, and no vaccine.”

“The virus doesn’t take a summer vacation,” adds physician Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s not a moment to totally let down your guard.”

Though researchers had previously theorized that warmer temperatures might dampen the transmission of coronavirus, new studies suggest that warmer, more humid weather has little effect on disease transmission—but that social distancing and face coverings do have a meaningful impact.

Here are a few approaches to several popular summertime activities while trying to keep your family as safe as possible.

Water, water, everywhere

Hot weather without playing in some kind of water is unfathomable for most kids, but with about half of U.S. states phasing in pool reopenings as of early June, how water-play fits in with summer activity is an evolving question.

While it’s true that chlorine is an effective killer of microbes, including viruses, chlorine does nothing to stop the danger of airborne transmission that comes from people in close proximity to each other. This is a special challenge with children. “You can’t really take a small child to a pool and not expect them to run over to their friends,” Sharfstein says.

Levine, who previously served as Virginia’s state health commissioner, says first and foremost: “Do your homework.” Call ahead to learn what kind of mitigation efforts the facility has put in place: distancing measures, capacity limits, sanitation of equipment and facilities. If you do decide on a family pool outing, the CDC recommends wearing face masks when not swimming and washing hands often.

For beaches and lakes, Sharfstein suggests checking state and local municipalities’ websites for information, as well as any specific restrictions or regulations still in place at your destination. Restrooms and water fountains may not always be available, for instance. And Levine also advises to be prepared to scuttle beach or pool plans if jammed-up parking lots and road shoulders suggest large crowds ahead.

“Turn around, find another beach, or go home,” she says. But if the coast seems fairly clear and you decide to proceed, make sure everyone still has a mask on hand if other people are around, especially in places where people congregate, like entryways and restrooms.

Taking it inside

To beat the dog days of summer, families often turn to air-conditioned entertainments. But kid-popular activities like cosmic bowling, catching the latest blockbuster flick, and going out to eat hold new risks this year.

Reopening procedures will vary by state (and even by city), but those first in line—such as Florida’s Stuart Bowl Lanes and Lounge and some theaters in Orange County, California— are being asked to implement measures to keep people apart and high-traffic surfaces clean. For these theaters, that often means advance reservations, designated seating, and disposable seat covers. Bowling alleys are maintaining several empty lanes between bowlers and sanitizing equipment between patrons’ use. Look for similar measures as your local establishments reopen, and again, insist that your family wears masks and washes their hands frequently.

As for dining, Levine advises trying to stay outside where airflow is good, and consider handling doors and other surfaces with a paper towel or tissue when going inside for a restroom break. Children over two years of age should wear face coverings indoors along with adults.

Sharfstein suggests thinking hard about spending much time indoors with others.

“There’s a lot we still don’t know about the transmission of this virus,” he says. “I’m certainly hopeful that there’s less transmission with people being outside. But I get most nervous when the stories involve people going inside and not wearing masks.”

Road trip warriors

The summertime road trip will probably need a bit more forward planning this year, no matter which mode of travel you choose.

Though new TSA guidelines are intended to reduce contact between travelers and security agents, Sharfstein says that it’s still difficult to maintain appropriate distance from other people on a plane, especially with children in tow. (But if you must, here’s how to find the safest airplane seats.)

As for road trips, a free-wheeling approach probably isn’t a great idea, Levine says. Plot out stops between your origin and destination before you leave, and make sure your car is stocked with sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer with 60 percent or greater concentration of alcohol. Don’t forget your own stash of paper towels or tissues to avoid touching surfaces other people might also be touching frequently. (Read more about summer travel tips.)

Sharfstein suggests that if group travel is a high priority, one approach is to co-vacation with another family and mutually agreeing to two weeks of before-and-after monitoring.

“If you’re going to get together [with friends], it’s great to know that people have done their best to minimize risk,” Levine adds. “Our biggest challenge is not denying there’s an issue and that everything will be fine. It calls for a lot of conversation.”

Proceed with caution

Despite establishments doing their best to keep things clean and people apart, Levine says it’s still a huge question mark as to whether these measures are good enough to keep people safe.

“It’s important not to be falsely led to feel like you’re protected from the potential for infection,” even with face coverings, she says. Once you’re in an enclosed space, the risks increase, and face masks matter exponentially more.

That said, the coronavirus is likely to be with us all for a while, and getting out is necessary for parents’ and children’s mental health and wellbeing.

“We have to learn to live with COVID, but there are ways we can do that safely,” Levine says. “It’s a good time to be creative and innovative with this. But be thoughtful and use the best evidence we have.”