More Parks and Fewer Bars: Socializing with Lower Risk

August 08, 2020

Caroline Colijn, Paul Tupper, and Himani Boury

So far, BC has been one of the best places to live in the world during the pandemic. When COVID-19 first came here, it was controlled for weeks with strong contact tracing, testing and reporting, and changes to long-term care. Travelers and others at risk were willing to isolate and keep contacts low. After transmission took off, it was detected early, and was slowed very effectively without strict lockdowns or fines; parks mainly stayed open, people cooperated with health guidelines and Dr Henry’s calm updates showed British Columbians how well we were doing. But our measures came at a high social cost, and one impact has been on mental health. Within BC, more people have suffered in terms of anxiety and depression than have been directly affected by the virus itself. Social isolation in particular has a terrible cost in terms of mental health. It’s essential to have ways to socialize while minimizing the risk of transmission.

One of the most consistent lessons we’ve learned about COVID-19 is that outdoor transmission is much rarer than indoor transmission. The reasons for this are still unclear, but it may be because aerosols are quickly blown away outdoors, because even in outdoor crowds people are not as closely packed as they are at indoor events, and because people are less likely to sing, shout, or talk loudly while outside.

In contrast, house parties, bars, nightclubs, and restaurants are risky locations for COVID-19 transmission for many reasons. They are indoors, they may be loud and require people to shout, and drinking often relaxes people to the point where they don’t take appropriate precautions. Venues are often too small to realistically allow 2m of social distance. One of the appeals of bars and nightclubs is the opportunity to meet strangers, thus breaking social bubbles. Many recent outbreaks in BC have been associated with these and other indoor activities. Canada Day weekend in Kelowna led to 130 new COVID-19 infections due to indoor gatherings and private parties. Recently, private parties in Vancouver were linked to at least 45 COVID-19 cases. Several food establishments and nightclubs experienced significant COVID outbreaks in the Lower Mainland. Of course, any changes that can be made to the organization of indoor activities in order to reduce the transmission risk are valuable. But since we need to socialize, and outdoor settings are the safest way we know how to do that, we should be doing everything we can to move social activities outside. One approach many Canadian cities have made is changes of policy to facilitate restaurants and other businesses to do this, including allowing temporary outdoor patios for restaurants or permitting more food trucks.

If we want to maximize opportunities for safe social interaction, and build up physical and mental health, we need to socialize in parks, not just in indoor venues. But bars (and other indoor social venues) have been open for weeks now in British Columbia. Meanwhile, a number of restrictions have been put on parks, limiting the number of people that can use them. This can make park access a scarce resource that people might ‘hoard’, for example by taking up a parking spot all day. This limits access to those who can arrive early or get a day pass in advance. Even if we must limit crowds — which we may have to do for capacity reasons, rather than COVID-19 transmission — rising hourly rates would equalize access and prevent hoarding of hard-to-get spots.

Instead of restricting parks, we should be opening them more — — allowing more parking, not less; opening more outdoor areas; encouraging bars and restaurants to have even more outdoor space, even allowing businesses to set up in parks wherever possible. Anything that we can do to make parks more attractive in the coming colder and rainier months is vital, such as providing extensive covered areas and outdoor heating. And at home, if we have the space to do so, we should move parties outside.

Winter is coming, and the pandemic is still with us. The relaxation of social distancing has already led us to a phase of exponential growth, and this will only be worsened by reopening schools. We may have to enter another phase of severe restrictions, and we will not have indoor socialization spaces to provide us with much-needed human contact. We need to enjoy our outdoor spaces to the maximum extent while we can, and to the best extent possible into the coming winter.