Coronaviruses Prefer the Great Indoors
The benefits of outdoor recreation outweigh the risks.
Note: This article was originally published on Medium.com on April 22, 2020. My account has been deleted (by me) due to Medium’s unfortunate policy of banning authors they do not agree with.
I understand that here in America, we don’t do nuance well. At the very least, we pay a lot of attention to people that don’t do nuance well. In the current COVID-19 pandemic, you can find examples of people completely ignoring any risks of viral exposure and transmission. Hoaxers, deniers, conspiracy theorists. It’s hard to ignore them, and easy to get annoyed, even outraged. But you can also find people that are going to unnecessary lengths to prevent exposure and transmission. Many of these folks are very vocal about everyone else’s hygienic inadequacies. Some attempt to disinfect everything they bring home from the grocery store, or receive by delivery, including mail. Some thoroughly disinfect rooms that have been empty of people for eight hours or more. Some wash their hands repeatedly at home, surrounded by people they already share their germs with (pretty much unavoidable). Many believe it’s safer to be overcautious than to unnecessarily expose themselves or other people to a virus that could cause serious disease, mainly in older people with chronic health conditions.
I sympathize with this philosophy, yet at the same time I have to acknowledge that caution has limits. In any case, science should help determine those limits. For example, coronaviruses are not the most stable viruses. They have an envelope, which means that they are essentially wrapped in a portion of a cell membrane that they stole upon their exit from an infected host cell. The combination of viral spike proteins and this fatty envelope makes coronaviruses look like they have a halo, or crown, in electron microscopy images (hence the name corona). But it also makes them sensitive to drying out. In other words, they would rather be in a warm, moist, cellular environment (i.e. you) than on a surface that is hostile to their survival. And transmission and replication are the only things that matter to their survival. So for enveloped viruses, such as influenza and COVID-19, hanging out in a dry room for eight hours with no one to infect results in a dead virus. You might still be able to detect viral nucleic acid on these surfaces, but that doesn’t signal the presence of infectious particles, only their dessicated (i.e. dried), inactivated remnants. And that’s on hard surfaces. On porous surfaces like fabrics, enveloped viruses become dessicated and inactivated even more quickly. So the potential dose of viral exposure goes down the longer viruses sit undisturbed. And dose does matter. So don’t fret too much about the dangers of contaminated indoor surfaces when no one has been around.
In contrast to indoor surfaces, the outdoors are even more hostile to enveloped viruses. Ultraviolet radiation, which is used in laboratories to disinfect surfaces, is present at much higher levels. Dessicating wind and porous and antimicrobial surfaces are also in abundance. Viruses that are transmitted easily via aerosol inhalation (and it’s not clear that COVID-19 is) will find a hard time finding a suitable host when quickly dispersed in ambient outdoor air. These factors make social distancing outside much more effective, and transmission much less likely, than in indoor environments.
Yet, there are definitely people overdoing outdoor precautions. I’ve consistently seen people walking and jogging in the middle of the street, oblivious to the increased possibility of being hit by cars, even when no one else is on the sidewalks. I’ve seen people cross the street to avoid me 30 feet away. I’ve heard even crazier anecdotes on social media, one about a woman running with a pool noodle to enforce social distance from passersby. That one, I thought, was pretty effective, just not for the reason she intended.
Probably most disappointing, though, is the closure of state park trails, recently in my state of Indiana. This is an official response, and, for the reasons I have outlined above, I believe it to be unnecessary and counterproductive. Other states have pursued these policies as well. Yes, I realize that people are encouraged to stay home for the simple goal of avoiding the spread of infection at all costs, and overcrowding of parks increases the risks (from zero to not much higher). But, we also have to acknowledge there are costs, and there are other ways to endanger public health than to minimally increase individuals’ risk of personal exposure. Outdoor activity is essential for mental and physical well-being, and the negative effects of physical and social isolation are well-known. Since much potential for indoor recreation has been drastically reduced in the current crisis, trail hiking was one of the few options for healthy recreation that remained.
Some have argued that states are unable to provide resources for parks due to steep budget shortfalls. Some states like Indiana, however, should be less affected by this, since state parks here already charged $7 per vehicle for in-state residents, and more for out-of-state residents. Overcrowding may also be an issue in some places, but it is possible to limit the number of vehicles entering at the gate, in order to minimize potential contact on trails. Practical solutions are available, only the willpower to use them is needed. In this case, individuals should be able to assess their own risk, and benefit, of outdoor recreation. For those that are convinced that hiking on a trail outdoors is more hazardous to their health than beneficial, they should be able to make the decision to stay home for themselves. Same for everyone else.