A gathering of several families swimming and playing volleyball at a private inland Lake County beach in late July led to 16 positive cases of COVID-19.
It’s a startling reminder of what health officials have been warning about for months: The virus can be transmitted outside as well as indoors, and children are at risk of infection just like adults.
The people involved in the Lake County case admitted to health officials they weren’t always wearing masks or social distancing during their outing. Eleven of those infected were under age 18.
“Even outdoors, if you are in close proximity to people who don’t live in your household, you’re taking a risk,” said Lake County Health Department spokeswoman Hannah Goering. “It is very important to wear a mask and maintain social distancing any time you gather with others.”
As summer winds down, public health officials are racing to curb the spread of COVID-19. The effort includes issuing warnings and taking actions to reduce the risks of crowded outdoor gatherings. It’s a message not resonating with everyone, as many enjoying the warm weather aren’t wearing masks or keeping distance from others.
Crowd sizes are also an issue. Swimming along the city’s lakefront has been banned all summer. Now suburban beaches in Evanston and Lake County limit visitors, having seen a surge of Chicagoans head north.
Beaches aren’t the only concern.
In a media briefing, Chicago Public Health chief Dr. Allison Arwady recently told a story of a neighbor chatting with a man and woman outside their home for about 20 minutes with none of them wearing masks. All three later tested positive for the virus, she said.
Cook County is launching a social media campaign soon reminding young people about the importance of masks. Outside in open air is a safer environment than an indoor setting with poor air circulation, but the virus also spreads through close contact, even outdoors, said Dr. Rachel Rubin, senior medical officer at Cook County Department of Public Health.
“Being outdoors is much better than being inside because you have constant air movement, but it does not mean you are safe,” Rubin said.
Health experts advise during the final weeks of summer to consider:
• If you’re masked and others aren’t, you are at risk.
• If you’re wearing a thin mask and are in close proximity to a sick person, you’re also at risk.
• If you’re unmasked and close to others who are unmasked, you’re at the greatest risk whether you’re inside or outside.
The bottom line: Wear masks, stay at least 6 feet away and wash hands frequently.
“We’re seeing a rise in cases because we’re not doing good enough at our masking, social distancing and hygiene,” said Dr. Micheal Lin, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Rush University Medical Center.
Lin and other experts say brief encounters, such as someone quickly walking by another person outside, doesn’t pose much risk. But when someone is exposed to another person for 15 minutes and within six feet, there is a better chance of being infected. Some can spread the virus in a shorter amount of time.
No mask is 100% effective, and a study from Duke University warns that thin material neck gaiters and bandanas may not work to prevent infection.
A cloth or inexpensive surgical mask will “work good enough,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University.
“The mask is just part of it,” Murphy said. “Social distancing is just part of it. You improve your chances of not being infected three- to fivefold.”
Health experts also advise parents to take precautions around youth activities.
As a leading expert on infectious diseases, Dr. Emily Landon spent the past several months imploring people to wear masks and keep their distance.
So when her 11-year-old son recently played in his first Western Springs Little League game of 2020, she was aghast when players, their families and coaches declined to wear masks or took them off during the game. Masks are encouraged but not required, the league website states.
After talking to league organizers, Landon, a researcher and associate professor of medicine at University of Chicago, said she was told parents weren’t willing to go along with such a mandate. It was the last game for her son.
“Masking is really important for everyone, including children,” Landon said. “If it’s optional to have batting helmets, would the players wear them?”
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.