Here's What Families Can Do As Lockdowns Lift, According to Health Experts

The U.S. is slowly reopening even as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in many states. Parents are getting mixed messages from political leaders about summer activities. So what do medical experts have to say about it?

Family walking with masks.
Photo: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

As most states go through the phases of reopening after COVID-19 lockdowns, parents are faced with tough choices related to their children's and teen's social lives. Having hibernated for most of the spring, kids are understandably anxious to see their friends in person and enjoy summertime activities. But, as coronavirus cases climb in many states, especially in South and Southwestern locales, parents have to weigh their options and apply prevention measures daily to protect against the virus.

According to Robert Redfield, M.D., director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social distancing of at least six feet is the most powerful weapon we have to combat COVID-19. The CDC and local health departments also recommend frequent hand-washing with soap and water for 20 seconds or the use of hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol, sneezing or coughing into a tissue or your elbow, and wearing face masks to protect others and yourself. Most states now have some kind of mask requirement so be sure to pack them in your "go-bag" along with sanitizer, tissues, gloves, and individually wrapped snacks.

So how can you navigate getting out in the sun this summer? The first thing parents should do before allowing children to leave the house is to research their state's health department guidelines. If the number of cases is going up in your area or you live with an elderly person and/or someone with a compromised immune system, it would be best to choose lower risk activities. Then consider your own circumstances. Everything from from budget to health and geography will determine a family's risk tolerance.

Here, experts breakdown the safest ways to take part in popular summer activities for kids and families.

Going to Public Places

Outdoor activities are less risky, but if beaches are open, one needs to practice social distancing and wear masks around others when not in the water. And if you want to see friends, it's always best to meet outdoors, socially distanced, with less than three locals who come from families that take precautions. Another tip: Going to a drive-in movie with family members is lower risk than going to an indoor movie theater.

Playing Sports

Sports like hiking, golf, biking and swimming are less risky than contact sports. "It's important to remember that there's no way to ensure zero-risk of infection. The general rule of thumb is: the more closely you interact with others, and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread," says Kim Lane, Ph.D., member of the CDC's Community Intervention and Critical Populations Task Force. "That means it may be safer to go camping with family, or to hang out with a small group in a friend's backyard, versus attending a concert that's packed with people or visiting a crowded indoor event."

William Schaffner, M.D., infectious disease expert

When people are being carefree rather than careful at events in some parts of the country, it has all of us in infectious diseases very anxious because those are circumstances that the virus likes.

— William Schaffner, M.D., infectious disease expert

Summer Camp Programs

Some states are allowing kids to attend day or sleep-away camps with guidelines in place. Day camps are riskier than overnight camps because, as with daycare, children go home to different environments and parents sometimes let children with symptoms return because they have to go to work, says William Schaffner, M.D., infectious disease expert and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Sleep-away camps can create more of an insulated bubble where kids can be subdivided into groups and monitored for symptoms. "You can stagger activity and mealtimes for the different groups, and prevent non-essential visitors," says Dr. Schaffner. "And while it's hard to keep young kids in masks all day, the counselors can wear masks all the time."

Sleepovers With Friends

And what if kids want to sleep over a friend's house? Parents may need to investigate further. "The virus is not going on a summer vacation so the moment you walk out that front door, you assume some risk," says Dr. Schaffner. "Make a phone call to the child's parents beforehand to find out what the ground rules are. This can be done in a nice way: 'What's your philosophy on physical distancing, washing hands more, wearing masks?' I think it's appropriate to have these conversations both within your own family, and with the family of other kids."

How Parents Can Be Good Role Models

Seeing the president of the United States host rallies without requiring social distancing or face coverings can be confusing to children who hear other officials stress the importance of adhering to CDC guidelines for COVID-19. "When people are being carefree rather than careful at events in some parts of the country, it has all of us in infectious diseases very anxious because those are circumstances that the virus likes," says Dr. Schaffner.

A number of Secret Service agents tested positive for coronavirus after the president's indoor rally in Tulsa. Health officials say it “likely contributed” to a spike in cases. And indoor social events have been causing spikes in places like Washington State, where the director of the Whatcom County Health Department said contact tracers determined the primary source of infection was young people not wearing masks at parties.

Conversely, there has not been an increase in cases attributed to the urban protests against police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd. According to a report released by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), this could be due to the fact that the protests were outdoors, many people wore masks, and the crowds led to increased sheltering in place for the rest of the population.

Even if cases did not rise after the protests, parents need to remind teens that they are not immune to COVID-19 and should continue to avoid large gatherings. And parents should always lead by example.

"Remember to be a good role model," says Dr. Lane. "If adults wash their hands often, stay at least six feet apart from others, and wear their face coverings in public spaces to help protect themselves and others, then kids are more likely to do the same."

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