With campsites set to reopen in some provinces across the country, many Canadians are hoping to enjoy some “normal” aspects of summer as coronavirus restrictions loosen.
Ontario will open campgrounds and private parks on May 16 so preparations can begin for the summer season as a part of the Stage 1 reopening process, Premier Doug Ford announced Thursday.
In Alberta, campgrounds will also open on June 1, and campers can start reserving their spots on May 14. In B.C., officials are planning to reopen most provincial campgrounds for June 1 as well, except for backcountry cabins and grounds that require visitors to use shared cooking facilities.
But with COVID-19 remaining a threat to the public, going on vacation even in your home province may seem risky. In order for the public to feel safe when visiting, campgrounds need to implement some strict health policies, experts told Global News.
Why outdoor activities may be safer than indoor ones
Your summer vacation to Europe is likely off the table, and camping may be the best option for a getaway while coronavirus remains a serious concern, said Colin Furness, a professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto.
As blowing outdoor winds and warm weather are factors that could curb transmission, camping can be an ideal way to get out of the house while practising physical distancing.
“I understand why campgrounds are going to open, and overall, it’s probably better to do it than not just in terms of mental health and the bigger picture… to give people things that they can do,” he said.
“I much rather people (camp) than go hang out in the mall, for example.”
Outdoor activities that involve a low population density and get city dwellers out of tightly packed buildings and streets are good options if you’re camping with a limited number of people, he added.
Shared washrooms, showers a problem
While camping may pose less of a risk than going to an outdoor music festival, for example, there are still factors that could impact how safe camping might be, Furness said.
Camping with too large of a group from many households would be the first thing to avoid.
“That’s starting to make me less comfortable, particularly because hygiene is not No. 1 when you’re camping,” he said. “So mixing households, and there’s not a lot of washing going on or hand hygiene, the risk is going to go up.”
Travelling with members of your household in an isolated area without shared facilities is likely to be safe if you pack extra hand sanitizer, he said. But for shared campgrounds that involve communal washrooms and showers, cleaning protocols need to be established.
“Shared washrooms, that really worries me because those are high-use. On a busy campsite, people are in and out, there’s no way to do social distancing, nothing is clean, and that would be more concerning to me,” he said.
B.C. parks said enhanced cleaning processes will be in place at all shower buildings.
To be safe, Furness recommends bringing more hand sanitizer and avoiding those washrooms, depending on what cleaning protocols are in place.
“I would try and go at off times when people aren’t having shower…to increase that separation,” he said. Even limiting the density by 50 per cent on busy campgrounds would be helpful as well, he added.
Handing out hand sanitizer or requiring campers to carry hand sanitizer would also create a safer environment, he said.
City dwellers need to be cautious entering other communities
Jay Kaufman, an epidemiologist at McGill University, agrees that camping is among the safer and more practical activities available to the public during the pandemic.
Campgrounds that are lower in density are ideal, he said, as are spaces where it is easy to keep away from other groups.
Even if you camp away from others, all common facilities should be disinfected frequently, and clear instructions need to be provided to visitors before they arrive so that they are informed on best practices, Kaufman said.
“Ideally, there would also be the provision of additional handwashing stations in places where people might contaminate surfaces or offices,” he said.
But beyond the safety of the campers, those from bigger cities need to be mindful of their actions and the risk they pose travelling into parks, he explained.
“People who develop symptoms while far from home may find themselves at a disadvantage in finding appropriate medical attention and may transmit disease to small clinics that are currently untouched by the illness, which is another danger to guard against,” he said.
To prevent this from happening, no one should travel while symptomatic and everyone should continue to be cautious by social distancing and keeping up hand hygiene, he said.
Be mindful of your actions on the drive up to the campsite as well, said Kaufman.
“Restaurants, rest stops and gas stations along the way pose the greatest risk. Food should be carried away, not consumed indoors, and extra hygiene should be practised at gas stations and rest stop bathrooms,” he said.
If parks are smart about the reopening process, and if visitors are careful, then these spaces can be a safe alternative to dense cities, he said.
“I consider campgrounds and parks to be among the most practical places to reopen safely, with all cautions and protections firmly in place.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
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