Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, many questions about the virus that causes the disease, including the infection fatality rate, the significance of mutations, and the efficacy of lockdowns, remain controversial. But epidemiologists and public health specialists have reached a consensus on at least one point: The risk of virus transmission is much lower in outdoor settings than it is indoors, especially when the latter spaces are poorly ventilated, crowded, and occupied by people who are expelling a lot of respiratory droplets by talking, singing, coughing, or sneezing. Yet some state and local governments have responded to the ongoing surge in newly identified infections by imposing irrational restrictions on outdoor activities that are bound to test the patience of Americans as they try to "hang in there" until vaccines are widely available.
Under a two-week order that New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued this month, golf courses and state parks "must reduce in-person operations by 100%." The order also tells residents, "You really should not be leaving the house unless it's an emergency or for an essential need like food and water." Residents who do venture beyond their doorsteps "must wear a mask," indoors and out, regardless of how close they are to people from other households. The only exceptions are for people who are "drinking, eating, or under medical instruction." The rules explicitly say people must "wear face-coverings while exercising," even "outdoors."
New Mexico had previously recognized that people could engage in outdoor activities with minimal risk of catching or transmitting the coronavirus. It described in detail "safe practices for golf courses," for example. Given that the scientific evidence regarding virus transmission has not changed since those guidelines were issued, it is hard to see why closing off outdoor recreation opportunities is justified now. You might think preserving those opportunities is especially important at a time when private, indoor gatherings are being blamed (without much evidence) for driving a spike in new cases.
Last week, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz banned "social gatherings" that include people from different households. "This prohibition includes indoor and outdoor gatherings, planned and spontaneous gatherings, and public and private gatherings," he said. It applies to groups of any size, "even if social distancing can be maintained."
Even The New York Times, usually a big fan of COVID-19 restrictions, was taken aback. Walz "took the extraordinary step of banning people from different households from meeting indoors or outdoors, even though evidence has consistently shown the outdoors to be relatively safe," the paper reported.
"If people are going to meet up, doing so outdoors is probably the lowest-risk way to do it," Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease modeler at the University of Toronto, told the Times. "Telling people they can't spend time safely outdoors isn't a rational approach. People are going to recognize that and push back."
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo likewise has banned all inter-household social gatherings. Her order also includes a ban on "all amateur adult and youth sports," both "outdoors and indoors." Indoor dining in restaurants is still permitted, subject to restrictions.
Rhode Island's mask rule is a bit looser than New Mexico's: "Any time you are near people who don't live with you, wear a mask." Similarly, California and Washington say you don't have to wear a mask outdoors as long as you are at least six feet from people who don't live with you.
Chicago is advising all residents to "only leave home to go to work or school, or for essential needs such as seeking medical care, going to the grocery store or pharmacy, picking up food, or receiving deliveries." If they do dare to leave home, they "must always wear a face covering." Mayor Lori Lightfoot also has imposed a 10-person limit on outdoor gatherings, although that restriction does not apply to indoor businesses such as fitness clubs, retail stores, or movie theaters. Outdoor dining at restaurants is allowed as long as tables are spaced at least six feet from each other and no more than six people sit at each table.
Philadelphia has banned "recreational activities and sports for youth, community groups, and schools," although "parks, trails, playgrounds, and athletic fields will remain open for individual use." The city also continues to allow outdoor dining at restaurants, with tables limited to four people, all from the same household.
Los Angeles County plans to impose new restrictions that will close playgrounds and ban all outdoor gatherings that include people from different households. But the Los Angeles Times reports that "beaches, trails and parks would remain open, as would outdoor venues like golf courses, tennis courts, skate parks, and community gardens."
California's message about outdoor recreation is mixed. "It's okay to go outside to go for a walk, to exercise, and participate in healthy activities as long as you maintain a safe physical distance of 6 feet and gather only with members of your household," the state's official COVID-19 website says. "You can also participate in activities at outdoor playgrounds and recreational facilities that are allowed to open." But it adds that "parks may be closed to help slow the spread of the virus" and warns that "Californians should not travel significant distances for recreation," even if they want to visit one of the parks that remains open.
There are several problems with these restrictions on outdoor activities. First, many of them are inconsistent and scientifically dubious. Second, foreclosing opportunities for people to recreate or gather outside is apt to increase the risk of virus transmission indoors, especially in private settings where the authorities have no idea what is happening, even if they are notionally imposing limits there. Third, arbitrary COVID-19 edicts that make life more inconvenient and less enjoyable for no rational reason foster resentment and defiance, which make compliance with reasonable safeguards less likely. In their determination to seem like they are doing something to slow the spread of COVID-19, many politicians are actively undermining that goal.