Among the important facts that have been established and reaffirmed, however, is that outdoor transmission is rare, and that while it is not nil, the chance of getting the virus in open air settings is much lower compared to getting it indoors. In one study in China (Qian et al. 2020), the researchers found only one outdoor outbreak involving two individuals among 7,324 identified cases. Conversely, some studies suggest that in closed settings, physical distancing and face mask wearing may not be perfectly protective.
An article in The Journal of Infectious Diseases (Bulfone et al. 2020) sums up the scientific explanation: “Outdoor spaces generally allow for more physical distancing, which mitigates the risk of virus transmission through larger respiratory droplets. Outdoor spaces allow for airflow, ventilation, and lack of recycled air, which all minimise the theoretical risk of aerosol transmission through smaller respiratory droplets.”
Such is the safety provided by the outdoors that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses outdoor activities as a way to socialise with friends.
“If you want to spend time with people who don’t live with you, outdoors is the safer choice! You are less likely to be exposed to Covid-19 during outdoor activities, even without the use of masks, when you: (1) stay at least six feet apart from people who don’t live with you, and (2) limit your time around others.”
Still, despite the established fact that the outdoors are a relatively safe space, and despite Department of Health officials like Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire saying that “outdoor activities are encouraged because of good ventilation,” this is still not fully reflected in our policies, many of which make no distinction between outdoor and indoor spaces.
Many of our parks remain closed, but most of our malls are open. Indoor activities like dining are having fewer and fewer restrictions, but outdoor activities are having more and more. At one point the government even tried to require face shields on cyclists. Even today, children and seniors are barred from leaving their houses, effectively depriving them of outdoor spaces that could benefit their physical and mental health.
Consequently, we still do not see this reflected in popular practice and discourse. Alas, “staying at home” and “going out” remain the axis in people’s conceptualisation of risk, with going to the Mall of Asia and jogging in Roxas Boulevard both categorised under the latter. Moreover, I have yet to see policies that incentivise or support businesses that actually embrace the more meaningful indoor/outdoor distinction.
What can explain this major discrepancy between science and policymaking? Perhaps it has something to do with the “one size fits all” thinking that infects all aspects of governance. Perhaps some policymakers conceptualise all of the “outdoors” as a street in Divisoria. Perhaps, too, there are cultural factors that figure in people’s risk calculus, such as local conceptions of “loob” and “labas.”
Regardless, however – and beyond concerns over Covid-19 – depriving people of physical activity by cutting them out of the outdoors will be detrimental to other aspects of health, not least of which involve the rising cases of non-communicable diseases. The “covidisation” of our lives should not go over and beyond that which is warranted by science, else we will be doing meaningless sacrifices. Indeed, we need to encourage activities that promote health and wellness and fulfill people’s physical, emotional, and social needs – while keeping them safe from the virus.
Outdoor activities, moreover, can mean more businesses and individuals will have the chance to earn livelihoods, from restaurants with open areas that can attract more customers to guides in ecotourism destinations, some of whom have turned to illegal logging, plant poaching, and other activities that adversely impact the environment.
Better late than never, I urge Philippine’s Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to revisit its policies in light of the evidence on ventilation and outdoor transmissions, and the medical community to nudge our officials more forcefully toward this direction. Beyond the much-awaited and long-delayed vaccination programme, we need a sensible and evidence-based pandemic response. The outdoors are a safe space, and the people must be enabled to take full advantage of their benefits to health and well-being. — Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN