We’ve finally made it to summer: the season of longer days, weekend cookouts, and school break. But this summer is shaping up to look a little—er, a lot—different from summers past. For the time being, the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a very real and persistent threat to public health. COVID-19 cases are climbing in many states across the U.S., and there is still no confirmed vaccine.
For parents, this begs the question: How do I keep my kids entertained this summer? Can they go to the pool, their friends’ houses, their favorite day camp? If you’re not used to having your kids around 24/7, you’re probably (understandably) looking for creative ways to get them out of the house. But how can you do that safely, with your family’s health in mind?
First, remember that every situation is different. What feels safe for you may not feel safe for someone else–depending on where they live and whether they’re at high risk for serious illness if they contract the virus. “The big picture thing to think about is that you’re not going to completely eliminate risk,” says Sean O’Leary, M.D., vice chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Infectious Diseases. “It’s risk mitigation, not risk elimination,” he explains. “It depends to a great deal how much COVID-19 is circulating in your community.”
Pay attention to the case numbers in your community, which are often available on your state or local health department website. Then, make decisions for your family according to what you’re comfortable with. One rule of thumb? “Outdoors is better than indoors,” says Joseph Gigante, M.D., professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville. “The virus is clearly much less likely to spread when you’re outside.”
That said, socializing is important for kids to feel happy and connected–not to mention, getting them out and doing things can help keep you sane. To assess the safety of different summertime activities, we spoke with pediatricians to get their advice on your most asked questions.
Can I take my kids to the public pool?
Sharing a pool with strangers may feel like a risky move, but it’s probably not the water you have to worry about. There’s no evidence at this point that COVID-19 can be transmitted through water. But you do need to pay attention to how much distance you can keep from others in and outside the pool. “Physical distancing is still the safest thing to do,” Dr. Gigante notes.
If you’re planning to hit up an outdoor pool, try to go during off hours when there aren’t as many people on the premises. “Set up your chairs or towels six feet apart,” Dr. Gigante suggests. If you’re using shared surfaces, like lounge chairs that others have sat on, the CDC recommends cleaning them off before using them. Wear masks when you’re out of the water. Bring hand sanitizer and hand wipes to avoid catching germs from public surfaces, like trash cans and bathroom doors.
Can they go to a friend’s outdoor party?
Lots of parents are having outdoor parties for their kids this summer to encourage socializing while preventing the spread of germs. And in this case (again) it really depends on what you’re comfortable with. “If you’ve been conservative in the ways you have managed this, the key is identifying families with children who have also acted in a conservative manner,” Dr. Gigante says. Don’t be afraid to ask the questions: Have the other families been social distancing? Are they acting according to CDC recommendations and expert health guidelines? If the host family isn’t prepared to take safety precautions at the party, you’re probably better off skipping it.
The fewer people at the party, the lower the risk. “If they’re not really huge groups, [outdoor parties] are probably relatively low risk,” Dr. O’Leary says. Dr. Gigante recommends disinfecting chairs and tables, wearing masks, and having hand sanitizer available. Another tip? Don’t allow kids to share food.
What about a sleepover?
This one is trickier. “This gets back to the parents’ comfort level,” Dr. Gigante says. If you have a specific group of families you’ve planned to interact with–and you’re all comfortable with the level of social distancing you’ve been doing–you may make the decision to allow your kid to sleep over with a friend. But a sleepover, in and of itself, is a risky move. “If one of the children were infected and the other was not,” Dr. O’Leary notes that viral spread is likely, especially if kids are staying indoors together and sharing a room (or even a bed). If you’re feeling at all hesitant, it’s best to sit this one out.
Should I drop my kids off at day camps?
If you’re working from home, there’s probably nothing more appealing to you than taking your kids to a day camp. And though many of those traditional camps that kids have come to cherish each year are cancelled in 2020, you may know of programs in your area that are still open for business.
“I think day camps can be safe, particularly if they’re primarily outdoors,” Dr. O’Leary says. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises keeping the following things in mind when looking for a camp this year:
Is the camp taking safety precautions to ensure adequate social distancing? Spaced seating, sneeze guards, partitions, and one-way routes are just a few ways camps can help ensure social distance.
Is the camp taking place primarily outdoors? Again, fresh air fun is the gold standard.
How will mealtimes work? Will campers move together in small groups or intermix? According to the CDC, campers who stay in the same small group all day have the lowest COVID-19 risk.
Will campers and staff be monitored for illness? Daily health checks of campers and staff provide the highest level of protection.
Is there a plan in place in case someone gets sick? Campers and staff should be clear on the protocol for when they (or someone they live with) become sick.
For sleepaway camps, you’ll need to be even more careful. The AAP recommends asking about sleeping arrangements and barriers between sinks and beds. “The problem I see with a lot of these overnight camps is that they’ve got kids coming from lots of different states,” Dr. O’Leary says. In this case, it’s hard to control the risk level of other people’s children. “What do you do with those kids who have come from out of state when there’s an outbreak at the camp and they get infected?”
Are team sports safe?
Here, it really depends on the sport. “Some team sports are more easily social distanced than others,” Dr. Gigante notes. Tennis, for instance, is relatively safe because it involves bringing your own equipment and standing across a court from someone else. Baseball and softball, depending on the situation, might be okay too. But a contact sport like football? Better to steer clear of that for now.
One more thing to keep in mind as you make these decisions for your family: The more careful you can be now, the more it will pay off in the long run. “Everything that we can do right now to decrease the number of cases is going to increase our chances of having kids in school safely in the fall,” Dr. O’Leary says.
By taking precautions right now, you can do your part to limit the spread of the virus and keep your community safe enough to reopen schools later this year. For now, keep doing your thing with those Zoom and FaceTime hangouts, and venture out (cautiously) with your family as you see fit.