As Canadians head into summer and COVID-19 lockdown measures slowly lift, more people are itching to return to outdoor sports.
While recreational sports leagues across the country halted their seasons when the pandemic hit, recreational games of tennis, volleyball, soccer and basketball are becoming increasingly common in communal facilities and parks.
Even professional sports, like basketball, baseball and hockey, are making a gradual return.
But is it safe to play a game of soccer with friends? What about a match of tennis?
“When you think about interactions in sports or other activities outdoors, the ones that are going to be lower risk are going to be ones that have less likelihood of direct interaction,” said Dr. David Finn, a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and team internist for the Boston Bruins.
Finn said because the novel coronavirus typically spreads through droplets during close contact, face-to-face interactions are riskier than physically distanced ones — even if you’re outside.
What sports are less risky?
Tennis, Finn said, is one of the “safer” outdoor sports to play because there’s fewer players and they are distanced from one another. Beach or outdoor volleyball can be relatively safe, too, if played with a limited amount of people and physical distance is kept. Large group activities are not advisable outside of an immediate household.
“There’s obviously the issue of the actual objects themselves,” Finn said.
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“People do worry if someone’s playing tennis and they may have the virus, they’re sweating, they’re sneezing or they’re rubbing their nose, and then they touch the ball. Then, the other person goes to serve the ball.”
While there is risk in such situations, Finn said transmission by touching objects is lower compared to person-to-person contact. Research has also found that outdoor socializing is safer than indoor as factors like the wind lower the risk of coronavirus transmission.
Still, it is safest to avoid touching the face and make sure to wash hands or use sanitizer frequently. It is also safest to play the sport with members of your immediate household or bubble.
A small, outdoor fitness class, where participants are physically distanced from one another and have their own equipment, is also considered lower risk if proper measures are in place.
The government of Alberta says health protocols should include frequent sanitization of hands and equipment, no sharing of food or drink, and no handshaking or high-fives.
Brian Conway, medical director at the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre, previously told Global News running with others is considered safe, as long as runners keep two metres apart from other people.
“The two-metre safety zone is established to cover a distance within which any virus that is present in the air could realistically travel and be transmitted from one person to another,” he said.
Sports where you are in closer quarters with others, like basketball or soccer, and considered higher risk, Finn said. On Friday, the NBA said that 16 out of 302 players tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association also said on Friday they have finalized terms of the deal that will allow the league to restart the season at the Disney World campus near Orlando, Fla., next month.
Many of the details were already known, such as how “stringent health and safety protocols” would be in place for the 22 teams that will be participating, that no fans will be present and that games will be held in three different arenas at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
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While professional athletes may be at greater risk as they are continually in close contact with others, even playing soccer or basketball recreationally can be dangerous.
“There is no 100 per cent guaranteed safe way to prevent transmission of COVID-19 in a contact sport in which you can’t wear masks while you’re doing that sport,” Finn said.
When it comes to professional sports leagues, there needs to be frequent testing, contact tracing and regular symptom checks among other health measures, Finn said. If people are sick, they should not play with others — period.
Finn said organized sport leagues need to balance health and safety protocols with the knowledge that there is going to be a risk of players contracting COVID-19 until there is a vaccine available.
It is up to organizations to create a situation where athletes can do their job — if they choose to — in a way that’s safest as possible for them and their families.
It’s important to note, however, that physical activity is needed — especially during a pandemic when many people are reporting poor mental health and high levels of stress. Exercise has been shown to have positive physical and mental benefits, and can help keep people healthy.
“Sports and exercise obviously play a critical role in health and wellness,” Finn said.
“And so I think we have to try to figure out what is the safest way for people to participate in things that they do enjoy doing, at the same time, doing them in as low-risk environment as possible.”
— With a file from the Associated Press
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.
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