APRIL 9, 2020 — Communities across Alaska continue to follow hunker-down and shelter-in-place guidelines that have changed how we should be physically active to prevent the spread of coronavirus, also called COVID-19.
“Alaska is beautiful, and being outside can be a good way to be able to take care of your physical and mental health — but it’s important that you do it safely,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer.
We talked with Zink to update our ongoing list of Questions and Answers for safe ways to get out and play right now. Her answers address wearing face coverings outside of your home and choosing the safest places to be active — the closer to home, the better. We’ve added her guidance to that previously shared by Louisa Castrodale, epidemiologist with Alaska’s Division of Public Health. It’s important to stay up to date with your community’s guidelines. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is also updating its coronavirus information daily at coronavirus.alaska.gov.
Should you always wear a face covering when you are physically active outdoors?
That depends on your surroundings, your activity, who you are with, and how closely you might pass by others. When you are being active outside, you are less likely to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus when there’s good air movement around you and when you are not touching surfaces, like playground equipment, Zink said.
Particles that we breathe or cough out can pass farther when we’re singing, running or doing other activities that require exerting ourselves, Zink said. That makes wearing face coverings particularly important when you are breathing harder and may pass by others while being active or come within 20 feet of others.
Cover your nose and mouth with a face covering when you are being active outside in a way that makes you breathe harder and in a place that you’ll likely pass people or come within 20 feet of others who are not members of your household. That could be strenuous hiking, running or biking. Remember to always keep distance between you and people who are not members of your household, even if you’re wearing a face covering.
You do not need to wear a face covering when you are doing an activity outside by yourself or only with family members, and you are not passing by others.
Who is the face covering protecting when you are wearing it? You, others or both?
“The reason you mask up — it’s not to protect you from others you are passing, it’s to protect others from you,” Zink said.
“I put my face covering up, I protect you. You put your face covering up, you protect me.”
The types of face coverings we are wearing outside right now are primarily worn to catch our own respiratory droplets and prevent them from spreading to others, Zink said. These homemade face coverings or buffs typically aren’t made with material that’s tightly-woven enough to protect you from very small droplets that others could be breathing or coughing out. That’s why the combination of wearing a face covering when exerting yourself plus maintaining a wide distance from others is so important, Zink said.
What kind of face covering should you wear, and does the type of material matter?
The material does matter, Zink said. The thicker the material, the better.
“If you can hold it up and see light through it, it’s not going to be OK,” Zink said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published this webpage about face coverings and several ways to make them.
Zink recommended using a covering that has a double layer of fabric, perhaps quilting fabric with a thicker weave. If you are an active runner, Zink encouraged making sure your face covering is thick, but also comfortable enough to breathe through the entire time.
Zink cautioned people not to use vacuum cleaner bags or industrial filters in their homemade coverings because those can have fine particles that you could inhale and cause lung damage.
What is the safest way to take off your face covering when you finish your activity?
Zink gave these steps for people wearing face coverings that hook over their ears: Wash your hands before removing the face covering. Remove the covering by touching only the ear loops, not the front of the covering or your face. Pull the face covering away from your face, and don’t have it touch your eyes as you remove it. If it’s a cloth covering, immediately put it in the washing machine and wash in hot water. If you don’t have a washing machine, you can wash the face covering in hot water and soap.
“The virus dies with heat and soap,” Zink said. “It does not die with cold.”
Then wash your hands again. Good handwashing is important, both before and after taking off your face covering, Zink said.
If you are wearing a buff, remove it by pulling it forward away from your face, close your eyes and pull it up over your head. Wash your face and hands immediately afterward. Wash the buff like you would wash the cloth face covering above. Then wash your hands again.
Are you allowed to be physically active at a park or on the trails, or do you have to stay on your own property?
Alaska’s guidance allows you to use local parks and trails, so long as you stay at least 6 feet away from others, Zink said. You do not need to stay on your own property. She said people should continue to follow their local guidelines, too, as they could include other restrictions. Also follow the guidance about wearing face coverings while you're active outside.
Are you required to stay in your own community to be physically active?
Guidance is changing as scientists and health providers learn more about COVID-19. At this time, the state guidance encourages Alaskans to recreate in open spaces and on trails that are near their homes and to comply with guidelines about social distancing and wearing face coverings.
“Be respectful of the places you are going,” Zink said. Don’t drive outside your community and fill up your gas tank there or stop along the way for food. Avoid touching things in other communities, like toilets and playground equipment. Don’t linger at trailheads where other people may be. Wash your hands often and use hand sanitizer when that’s not possible.
Right now, Alaska’s guidelines continue to allow outdoor recreation at a distance from others because there are health benefits that come with safe activity. Zink stressed the importance of choosing activities that limit falling and getting hurt.
Please keep reading below to see previous Questions and Answers about safe physical activity in Alaska.
Should families avoid play dates in communities with hunker-down and shelter-in-place guidelines?
Communities across Alaska have guidelines in place that state people should not invite friends or family members to their homes for a visit.
“What that means is families should avoid indoor play dates in communities with hunker-down and shelter-in-place guidelines,” Castrodale said.
“We recognize this is really hard for kids who feel isolated and can be stressful, but it’s needed for the time being to limit the potential spreading of illness.”
Families should prioritize playing outside with their family members and staying at least 6 feet away from people who are not members of their household. This may be difficult for families with little children who are too young to understand how to maintain a safe distance from others, Castrodale said.
If you play in the same areas as other families, choose wide open places and activities that are easier to do with distance – like hiking and biking. She also said to avoid activities that involve direct contact with non-family members, like football or tag.
“Contact sports are best to avoid right now,” she said.
Castrodale recognized that it’s important for kids to stay connected with friends to reduce the feeling of isolation, but stressed that kids will need to maintain that connection virtually right now. She recommended apps like FaceTime or Skype or other online options for staying in touch with friends.
Should children avoid outdoor playgrounds?
Yes. Picking physical activities other than the playground right now is the best option. Playgrounds are a place where children will want to interact and it will be difficult to have them remain far enough away from each other. It is also a place where parents could find themselves accidently gathering too closely with others. Please keep checking local guidance.
Should children limit playing or socializing with grandparents or other adults over age 60?
Castrodale said it’s wonderful to support children’s relationships with grandparents and older adults, but physical interaction between them right now should be limited or avoided. People 60 and older and those with ongoing health concerns, like heart disease and diabetes, face the highest chances for serious health problems related to coronavirus.
“Part of this idea of social distancing is to protect our most vulnerable folks,” Castrodale said.
So while it’s sad to limit face-to-face interactions with older loved ones, that might be the best thing for their health right now. Instead, use apps like FaceTime or Skype to keep your children and grandparents in contact.
“Right now, the best way to love grandma is to send her a nice note, rather than to see her in person,” Castrodale said.
What can your family do to prevent the spread of illness?
Kids and parents should do several things to prevent getting and spreading illness:
- Wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. That’s the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song from start to finish twice. If water is not available, use a hand sanitizer that’s made with at least 60% alcohol.
- Cover their own mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, either through coughing into their elbows or ideally using a tissue. Then, immediately throw the tissue away and wash their hands.
- Avoid touching their faces, especially with unwashed hands. That includes rubbing eyes or touching noses or mouths.
- Don’t share cups, water bottles, utensils or food.
- Parents can frequently clean and disinfect surfaces that kids touch a lot, like doorknobs and toys. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published recommendations for cleaning and disinfecting homes with suspected or confirmed coronavirus infections. This webpage includes a section for routine cleaning of households that states families can use household cleaners and EPA-registered disinfectants on frequently touched surfaces.
- Children and adults should stay home when they have a fever (100.4°F or higher), are coughing or are short of breath. These are some of the symptoms of coronavirus, also called COVID-19. Families also should follow guidelines about limiting contact with others who have recently traveled outside Alaska. These are found under "COVID-19 Health Alerts and Mandates" on coronavirus.alaska.gov.
What should you do if your child becomes sick?
Castrodale said the most important thing to remember is to keep sick children inside the home and away from others, including siblings.
“Anyone who is sick needs to be isolated,” she said. Of course, a parent will need to provide care for that child, but siblings and others should be separated as much as possible. If parents believe the child needs medical care, they should call their provider before going in to the clinic, she said.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is updating its coronavirus information every day. Please stay informed by visiting coronavirus.alaska.gov.
Photograph of Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska's Chief Medical Officer, wearing a face covering while being active outdoors.