As the temperature starts to dip and most of the country moves into colder months, many are wondering about the safety of hosting outdoor gatherings during the pandemic. Surely you’ve seen your neighbor hosting a draft party in his garage. Or maybe you’ve been invited to a friend’s house for a backyard bonfire.
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But how safe are these outdoor get-togethers? And is it worth the freezing cold?
According to emergency medicine physician Baruch Fertel, MD, it’s important to first acknowledge what we know about the transmission of COVID-19:
- You’re most likely to catch the virus from the air you breathe, so good ventilation and physical distance are some of the best forms of protection.
- Wearing a face mask greatly reduces the rate of transmission for both yourself and those around you.
When you’re debating whether or not you should attend any event during the pandemic, these truths should be top of mind to help you determine the risk level.
Here Dr. Fertel explains the science behind outdoor vs. indoor activity and what to keep in mind if you gather outside.
Can you catch COVID-19 outdoors?
Yes, you can absolutely still catch the virus outside.
“There have been plenty of examples of large, outdoor gatherings becoming superspreader events,” explains Dr. Fertel. “Just because you’re outside does not mean there isn’t any risk. The best protection really comes down to ventilation, physical distance and wearing a face mask.”
A good example to demonstrate how the virus spreads is to imagine everyone around you smoking. To prevent other people’s smoke from going into your face (because no one wants that), you’d spread out and back away from the smokers. This could be done easily if you were outside and you’d notice the smoke quickly disappearing. But if you were inside and everyone around you was smoking, it would be difficult to get away since the smoke would linger and there’d be less room to spread out.
So merely being outside is not a guarantee that you won’t get the virus, but we do know that it’s better to be outdoors than indoors.
Gathering outside in the cold during the pandemic
If you absolutely cannot bear one more virtual hangout and you live in an area where it gets cold, rest assured there are ways to gather outside and still be safe (and warm). However, you’ll need to take the proper precautions and make sure that the small group of people you’re interacting with will comply. (Again, just because you’re outdoors does not mean you can’t catch the virus!)
“If you’ve decided that it’s worth it to be a little uncomfortable in the cold, and you’re willing to do things safely, I think it’s reasonable to host or attend a small, outdoor get-together,” says Dr. Fertel.
Garages and tents
If you live in an area where it might rain or snow, you’ll likely want some sort of shelter to keep you dry and some sort of heat source to keep you warm. Many people have decided to turn their garages into gathering areas or have invested in some sort of tent.
Dr. Fertel says a makeshift garage hangout is an OK idea, as long as the garage door is completely open and there is good ventilation. If you can, open any other windows or doors in the garage to allow for more airflow. And remember, your gathering should be small so you’re not too close together once you’re in the garage.
Things can get tricky with gathering in tents. If all of the sides are up or if you use a canopy, that is most optimal because of the airflow. However, unless the tent or canopy is fairly big, you’ll have a hard time maintaining six feet of physical distance between other people. If there’s little or no airflow in the tent, it’s no better than gathering indoors.
Hypothermia can occur in as little as 10 or 15 minutes in extremely cold temperatures. Babies, young children and older adults are most at-risk, so consider your group’s age and health when determining if an outdoor gathering is safe.
“Many people think if they’re cold and uncomfortable then they are safe from COVID-19, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Dr. Fertel.
Having an outdoor heat source will make everyone more comfortable, but it’s important to make sure that guests aren’t huddled too close together to get to the warmth. Whatever heat source you use, it really comes down to space, set up and safety.
A portable fire pit might be a good option if you’re OK with tending to a fire, but you’ll want to make sure that guests aren’t breathing in smoke and that no one gets burned. You could also choose to provide your guests with air-activated, disposable hand warmers to keep and take home.
Outdoor heating lamps, heated patio furniture, heated blankets and portable heaters all might be good options, but be aware of extension cords, flammable objects, burns and overloading electrical sockets. It’s worth noting that electric space heaters cannot cause carbon monoxide poisoning, but fuel-burning space heaters can and should only be used in well-ventilated areas.
And don’t forget, in many areas it now gets darker much earlier. Make sure there’s plenty of light in your outdoor space so guests don’t trip and fall. Hang string lights or place solar or battery operated lights around the area.
Cold-weather entertaining tips during coronavirus
Here’s what else to keep in mind if you’re gathering in the cold:
- Be vigilant about staying at least six feet away from others. Space out chairs or put tape on the ground where others should stand or sit. Having physical reminders or barriers will help people be aware of maintaining physical distance.
- Limit your group size (seriously, it needs to be small). It’s reasonable to want to get together with friends or family, but precautions still need to be maintained, urges Dr. Fertel. Small gatherings are preferred, such as one additional family or household. You should also feel comfortable asking this group what other precautions they’ve been taking. Is it similar to your own? Remember, the fewer the people the lower the risk.
- Wear a face mask. We know, it’s no fun to wear a face mask, especially if you’re eating, drinking and socializing with someone you haven’t seen in a while. But in case you haven’t heard, face masks are proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Between sips and bites (and even when you’re talking), you should be wearing a face mask properly – especially if you’re high-risk or interacting with someone who is.
- Stay warm, wear layers. You’ll want to dress in layers so you can take a layer or two off and put them back on as needed. You should also wear a hat and gloves and bring plenty of blankets with you.
- Monitor how much alcohol you’re consuming. As people drink, safety precautions and behavior can start to seem less important. This can be dangerous when mixed with a global pandemic and also when consuming alcohol in cold weather. Instead, try to alternate between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks or decide that you won’t drink altogether.
- If you must go inside, wear a face mask and be quick. You’ll need to spend the majority of time outside during your gathering, but if you have to dodge inside someone’s house for a quick bathroom break, wear your face mask, wash your hands and don’t linger.
- Move around. To stay warm outside, it’s OK to do some sort of physical activity, but now’s not the time to play football or other game where you’d be in close contact with others. Instead, try dancing (with plenty of space), tossing around a Frisbee or a game of cornhole. Also don’t touch your face between throws without washing your hands or using hand sanitizer first.