Risk mitigation tool for outdoor recreation spaces and activities operating during the COVID-19 pandemic
Objective: This tool will assist in considering risks associated with the use of parks and outdoor recreational spaces during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, and provide examples of strategies that may be implemented to reduce potential risks.
Audience: Those responsible for parks and outdoor recreational places and programming (e.g., federal/provincial/territorial and local/municipal authorities, Indigenous leadership, sports and recreation organizations and coaches and leaders).
Outdoor recreation spaces or recreational activities that require staff (for example to accept payment for entrance fees, to provide food and beverage services, etc.) should also refer to the tool for workplaces and businesses for guidance on risk assessment and risk mitigation related to business operations.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many provinces and territories closed or restricted access to outdoor recreational spaces. Refer to your provincial or territorial website for updates on the restriction of outdoor recreation spaces and activities. As provinces and territories begin to lift or adjust restrictive public health measures, it is important that those responsible for outdoor recreational space and activities consider the possible risks, and identify and implement risk mitigation measures when re-opening or operating during the COVID-19 pandemic. This tool is a resource intended to be used alongside and in support of guidance from provincial/territorial health authorities and other relevant ministries, and Indigenous community governance structures. Guidance from provincial/territorial health authorities will consider local epidemiology, which varies widely across the country. Therefore, implementation of guidance is not expected to be uniform throughout Canada.
For the purposes of this document, outdoor recreation spaces include spaces such as municipal or public parks, community gardens, hiking paths and trails, dog parks, playgrounds, skate parks, outdoor pools, splash pads, beaches, piers and campgrounds. Outdoor recreational activities include activities such as team sports (e.g. baseball, soccer, lacrosse, street hockey), individual sports (e.g., skateboarding, golf, tennis), as well as activities such as tai chi, cycling, fishing, water based activities and hunting. Throughout this document, the term "participants" is used to describe users of outdoor recreational spaces, as well as participants in activities.
Access to outdoor recreation spaces varies widely among Canadians. For example, Canadians living in low-income neighbourhoods generally have more limited access to sports and recreation facilities. Similarly, persons with disabilities tend to experience constraints in accessing outdoor recreation spaces and those living in apartments or condos tend to rely on public parks and spaces more than Canadians in single family home to get outdoors. Such inequities may be amplified by certain public health measures and the social impacts of the pandemic. Equitable access to outdoor recreational spaces is an important consideration in terms of encouraging physical activity and promoting population health.Footnote 1
Public health measures taken by participants, organizers, and operators for outdoor recreational spaces and activities are part of Canada's collective approach to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. While there is currently preliminary evidence suggesting that the risk of coronavirus transmission is greater in indoor compared to outdoor settings, the potential contribution of outdoor recreation to the spread of COVID-19 is unknown. This tool is based on concepts outlined in the guidance developed for community-based measures entitled: Community-Based Measures to Mitigate the Spread of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in Canada. It reflects the currently available scientific evidence and expert opinion, and is subject to change as new information on transmissibility, epidemiology, and effectiveness of public health and risk mitigation measures becomes available.
What are the COVID-19 risks associated with the use of outdoor recreation spaces and activities?
The following facts about COVID-19 and associated questions can help you consider the risks of COVID-19 in outdoor spaces and during outdoor recreational activities.
The risk level is affected by whether there is COVID-19 activity in the local community. If there is known COVID-19 activity in the community, the likelihood that it could be introduced into an outdoor space or recreational activity is higher. The risk of COVID-19 introduction and spread is also presumed to be greater if a higher proportion of individuals visiting the outdoor spaces or participating in the activity comes from outside of the community. Measures put in place to mitigate risk should be proportionate with the risk in the community, which is informed by the local epidemiology. Public health authorities (PHAs) can be consulted for information about local COVID-19 transmission.
COVID-19 spreads from person to person, most commonly through respiratory droplets (e.g., generated by coughing, sneezing, laughing, singing, or talking) during close interactions (i.e., within 2 metres). People who have COVID-19 may have few to no symptoms, or symptoms may be mild, and people are infectious to others prior to when their symptoms start.
- Do participants (e.g., park users, players) interact with many other people while using the outdoor space or during the activity? A higher number of interactions with others carries greater risk.
- Do participants interact closely (within 2 metres) with others while in the outdoor space or during the outdoor recreational activity? Closer interactions carry greater risk than interactions at a distance.
- Do participants have prolonged close interactions with others while in the outdoor space or during the outdoor recreational activity (e.g., team sports, trail lookouts, narrow trails, picnic areas and campgrounds)? Prolonged contact is defined as lasting for more than 15 minutesFootnote 2 of time being less than 2 metres away, and may be cumulative (i.e., over multiple interactions). Evidence indicates that person-to-person spread is more likely with prolonged contact.
- Is the outdoor space or recreational activity crowded (i.e., high density of people) on a regular basis? A crowded setting is presumed to have greater risk.
- Do any interactions occur indoors (e.g., use of restrooms, changing for an activity or sport, spending time in a cabin or tent with others while out on the land)? Being in a confined indoor space carries a greater risk.
- Do participants have prolonged close interactions with others outside their household while participating in a cultural activity (e.g. food harvesting, hunting) and associated travel and accommodations?
COVID-19 can also be spread through touching something with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes before washing your hands.
- Do participants frequently have contact with high-touch surfaces (i.e. surfaces frequently touched by others)? A higher number of contacts with high-touch surfaces (e.g., shared recreation equipment, climbing structures, restroom facilities, handrails next to stairs) is presumed to have greater risk.
- Are facilities available where participants can wash and/ or sanitize their hands before and after eating, and after contact with high-touch surfaces (e.g., access to hand hygiene stations/supplies)?
- Are there existing environmental cleaning and disinfecting practices for high-touch surfaces?
COVID-19 can cause more severe disease or outcomes among older adults (increasing risk with each decade, especially over 60 years); people of any age with chronic medical conditions (e.g., lung disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease, stroke or, dementia); people of any age who are immunocompromised, including those with an underlying medical condition (e.g., cancer) or taking medications which lower the immune system (e.g., chemotherapy); and people living with obesity (BMI of 40 or higher).
- Do you have participants who may be at higher risk of more severe disease or outcomes?
COVID-19 spread can be reduced by consistently practicing personal protective practices.
- Are participants able to follow hygiene practices such as washing/sanitizing hands frequently, respiratory etiquette, and identifying when they are feeling ill and staying home?
How can COVID-19 risks be mitigated in outdoor recreational spaces and activities?
To prevent or limit the spread of COVID-19 in community-based settings such as an outdoor space or during a recreational activity, consider the following risk mitigation principles and measures. Risk mitigation measures that are more protective involve separating people from each other or shared surfaces through physical distancing and physical barriers. Measures that are less protective rely on individuals to consistently follow personal protective practices (e.g., use of personal protective equipment, wearing of non-medical masks). To maximize safety, use a "layered" approach with multiple measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread, including decreasing the number of interactions with others and increasing the safety of interactions. Layering of multiple mitigation measures strengthens the risk mitigation potential overall. The following examples of risk mitigation measures are provided for your consideration. The following list is not exhaustive - you are encouraged to find creative and adaptive ways to mitigate risk in your setting that align with public health advice.
Discourage people who are ill from accessing the outdoor space or participating in outdoor activities.
- Post culturally appropriate, accessible signage that takes into consideration the participants' age, ability, literacy level and language preferences to discourage individuals who are ill from accessing the outdoor space or participating in outdoor recreation
- Consider embedding website-based notices for reservation systems (e.g., parks and campgrounds) to share pre-visit information about the expected individual behaviours upon arrival (e.g., physical distancing, hand hygiene)
- Require that participants in organized outdoor recreational activities (players, employees, coaches, participants, spectators) stay at home if they are ill or have any symptoms of COVID-19 until criteria to discontinue isolationFootnote 3 have been met, in consultation with the local public health authority or healthcare provider.
- Consider asking participants in organized outdoor recreational activities if they are ill or have symptoms of COVID-19 before the start of the activity, and request that individuals who are ill or have symptoms of COVID-19 not participate.
Promote and facilitate personal protective practices. Everyone plays a part in making outdoor recreational spaces and activities safer.
- Keep patrons/participants informed about public health advice applicable to your outdoor setting or recreational activity
- Promote the use of personal practices (e.g. frequent hand hygiene, avoid touching face, respiratory etiquette, clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces)
- Post culturally appropriate signage that is appropriate for the participants' age, ability, literacy level and language preferences to remind participants to practice good hygiene.
- Provide increased access to hygiene facilities (e.g. by placing hand sanitizer dispensers or additional hand wash stations in easy to see locations) and ensure accessibility for participants with disabilities or other accommodation needs.
- Ensure washrooms are cleaned and disinfected frequently and are consistently supplied with hand soap, paper towels and lined, no touch waste receptacles
Promote physical distancing (i.e., keeping a distance of 2 metres from others), which is one of the most effective ways to reduce the spread of illness.
- Encourage recreational activities/sports in which it is possible to maintain physical distancing over closer contact activities/ sports.
- Limit the number of participants and spectators, as allowed in your jurisdiction, in outdoor spaces and recreational activities to prevent overcrowding.
- Provide culturally appropriate and accessible signage at outdoor spaces reminding users of physical distancing requirements (e.g. 2 metre separation between individuals and family households in spaces like civic parks and beaches).
- Where possible, create appropriate spacing between features in outdoor spaces where people would spend time (e.g. increase distance between picnic tables and benches).
- Modify outdoor spaces to promote physical distancing (e.g., make narrow trails or walkways one way to facilitate physical distancing and establish passing areas where possible).
- Encourage the use of all available parks space, not just the most popular spaces.
- Use visual cues to promote appropriate spacing (e.g., trail markers for unidirectional flow of person traffic, spacing for lineups or spectator stands for organized outdoor activities, use of temporary markings, such as sports lime or chalk).
- Consider increasing the amount of available outdoor spaces to reduce crowding in other spaces (e.g., close some streets to vehicle traffic to expand access to walking spaces that promote distancing).
- Consider closing or modifying non-essential indoor spaces associated with the outdoor space.
- Restrict occupant capacity of indoor spaces such as restrooms and change rooms (e.g., close stalls to manage volume/occupancy).
Mitigate risks from exposure to high-touch surfaces (i.e., surfaces frequently touched by others).
- Limit the use of shared equipment that cannot be easily cleaned and disinfected between users (e.g., sports equipment,)
- Remove (where possible) or restrict use of common-use equipment or fixtures in outdoor settings (e.g., removing swings if playground is closed)
- Increase frequency of environmental cleaning and disinfecting, especially of high touch surfaces that continue to be accessed (e.g. water fountains, handrails, playground equipment if applicable).
- If restrooms and/or showers are available, limit number of users at a given time, maintain handwashing supplies, increase cleaning and disinfecting frequency, install no-touch garbage bins.
- Consider increasing access to temporary hand hygiene stations/supplies. Children may need supervision to ensure effective hand hygiene is performed.
- For amenities that are not serviced or serviced infrequently (e.g. outhouses/latrines), provide signage indicating that it is to be used at one's own risk.
Mitigate risks during community based outdoor sports (e.g., house-league outdoor community sports programs).
- Consider the type of play and the spectrum of risk. Sports with less potential for physical contact (e.g., tennis) are presumed to carry less risk whereas sports with more potential for contact (e.g., soccer, football and basketball) are presumed to carry more risk.
- Consider modifying play to reduce contact risk (e.g. no contact rules).
- Consult with relevant sports associations in your region for guidance regarding return to play that can assist your risk mitigation strategy for person to person interaction
- Community organizers should consider developmental stage and ability when implementing mitigation measures for community based sports programs.
- Consider smaller teams and stagger smaller practice/training groups to decrease opportunity for close contact. Consider activities that can be alternatives to games.
- For organized sports, implement absenteeism/attendance policies (e.g. documenting the names of those in attendance) that can support Public Health Authority efforts to identify coaches, referees and participants should exposure to COVID-19 occur.
- Separate participants by 2 metres while not on the field/court, including while on the bench between shifts.
- Consider engaging community members or parents of team members to:
- Monitor physical distancing between coaches, participants and spectators. Monitors can remind individuals to maintain their distance.
- Ask participants, coaches and spectators if they are ill or have symptoms of COVID-19 before the start of the activity, and request that individuals who are ill or have symptoms of COVID-19 not participate.
- Limit the use of shared equipment during outdoor recreational activities (e.g., sports equipment, golf clubs, bats/ batting helmets) and clean and disinfect equipment after play and between users.
- Wash or sanitize hands following play, especially following contact with shared equipment.
- Require that each participant consumes only their own water and refreshments.
- Participants should be encouraged to change at home and come ready for practice/participation in their activity (e.g., bring their own water bottle and towel).
- Ensure family members and spectators practice physical distancing.
- Discourage singing, yelling and chanting from spectators and participants.
- Eliminate team huddles and the beginning and end of game fist-bump /handshake routines.
- In the event that a participant requires first aid, consider having a family member attend to the injured. If not possible, the person providing first aid should use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including medical mask and gloves.
- Maintain a first aid kit stocked with PPE.
Mitigate risk for people at risk of more severe disease or outcomes.
- Provide special accommodations for participants from vulnerable groups (e.g. dedicated times for seniors to use the outdoor space or access the recreational activity).
- Consider increased environmental cleaning and disinfecting prior to use of the facilities by known vulnerable groups.
Modify the outdoor space or activity to reduce how long participants are in contact with each other and how many participants come into contact with each other.
- Close or restrict access to non-essential features or common areas that encourage people to gather (e.g., club houses except for washroom access, concession areas, viewing platforms on trails).
- Consider unidirectional traffic on busy/narrow trails to limit close face-to-face contact between users and remind people to keep to their right at all times and, merge into a single file as needed.
- Stagger setting hours for different user groups to reduce number of contacts.
Should users of outdoor recreational spaces wear masks?
- The wearing of non-medical masks or cloth face coverings is an additional personal practice that may help to prevent the infectious respiratory droplets of an unknowingly-infected person (the wearer) from coming into contact with other people outside the home.
- In most circumstances non-medical masks (NMM) or cloth face coverings are not deemed necessary in outdoor recreational spaces when physical distancing is possible and can be predictably maintained. However, use of NMM is recommended if physical distancing is not possible or is unpredictable, and local epidemiology and community transmission warrant it.
- In some outdoor activities, wearing a NMM may not be practical or tolerable. For example, during periods of intense activity, NMMs may reduce the ability to breathe comfortably and sweat can make the NMM become wet more quickly. Also, there may be potential risk from injury if the NMM is caught on equipment. In those instances, physical distancing remains an important personal protective practice.
- For sports where a face shield can be used (e.g. hockey), a face shield may be considered.
- Non-medical masks or cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.
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