As Playgrounds Start to Reopen, Here’s How to Keep Kids Safe

The playground padlocks are starting to come off. Now that all 50 states have begun to reopen, children in some areas are once again zipping down slides and swinging from monkey bars after months of waiting.

A handful of states, including Massachusetts, Colorado, Ohio and Iowa, announced in June that playgrounds could start reopening, though the decision to open town or city-owned playgrounds is usually made locally. In Boston, for example, playgrounds are not expected to open until next week. On Thursday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York said during his daily briefing that localities are now permitted to open public pools and playgrounds, and local governments can decide for themselves whether or not to do so.

“But they have to use their judgment here,” he said. “Sometimes ‘yes’ is not the right answer. It’s the easy answer.”

While this is good news for children, some parents are being a bit more cautious. The coronavirus is still spreading, and a vaccine isn’t expected until next year at the earliest. Although the overall number of deaths in the United States has been curving downward, testing in some states suggests that infections are climbing quickly. So is it really OK to return to the playground?

It’s impossible to negate all risks of contracting the virus at a place like a playground, which is frequented by large numbers of people who may have different views about social distancing and hygiene.

But outdoor playgrounds do have the benefit of fresh air and more space between people than what most indoor spaces offer. There is a growing consensus that if you’re going to leave your home, it’s safer to be outdoors than an indoor public gathering space, like a mall. When air is stagnant, respiratory droplets could linger, experts say, whereas the air flow outside can help dilute the virus.

A crowded playground, however, might present a bigger risk.

In Massachusetts, caregivers “will be required to seek alternative facilities” if the playground is so crowded that social distancing cannot be maintained, according to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Colorado has more specific rules about capacity. Playgrounds can be used by no more than 25 people at a time, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced last week, and high touch areas should be cleaned and disinfected “frequently.”

It’s unclear how long the coronavirus can live on plastic and metal playground structures that are touched by hundreds of tiny, and often dirty, hands.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that people can get Covid-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes, but this was “not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that the virus lives longest on plastic and stainless steel and can survive on those surfaces for up to 72 hours. Another study, published in The Lancet, found that the Covid-19 virus remained viable up to four days on stainless steel and plastic, but the researchers said the method they used to extract the virus from these objects wasn’t analogous to casually touching a surface.

The World Health Organization cautioned that those studies were conducted under laboratory conditions where the surfaces were neither cleaned nor disinfected so they “should be interpreted with caution in the real-world environment.” And it’s also unclear whether the virus the researchers detected would have infected people who came in contact with these surfaces.

The C.D.C. recommends that playgrounds surfaces made of plastic or metal, like grab bars and railings, be cleaned regularly, but do not require disinfection.

And not all administrators have the funds to clean playgrounds. In Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources posted on its website, “Equipment is not sanitized, user discretion is advised.”

Some studies suggest that sunlight could help to reduce the amount of virus lingering on surfaces, but that doesn’t appear to have been studied in playgrounds.

Yes, the C.D.C. recommends wearing masks in playgrounds. Face coverings are believed to reduce transmission of the virus. Even the World Health Organization, which had long refused to endorse face masks, concluded in June that governments should encourage mask wearing because of “a growing compendium of observational evidence.”

Cloth masks worn by the general public aren’t as effective as surgical masks or N95 respirators, but they still offer some barrier protection against the large respiratory droplets generated when an infected person sneezes, coughs or breathes.

But for very young children, say 2 or 3 years old, wearing a mask can sometimes be counterproductive, said Dr. Sean O’Leary, M.D., the vice chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases and an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and Children’s Hospital Colorado.

For example, if your child is continually touching their face and readjusting the mask, “they might become infected themselves,” Dr. O’Leary said.

The C.D.C. says children younger than 2 should not wear face coverings because of the risk of suffocation.

If a playground is full of children, consider coming back at a different time of day — perhaps early in the morning when the crowds are thinner.

If there aren’t bathrooms nearby to wash children’s hands regularly, the C.D.C. recommends carrying hand sanitizer. Apply enough to coat every surface of both hands and then tell your child to rub their hands together until they are dry. Consider cleaning your child’s hands before they eat a snack on the playground and also after leaving it.

If you plan to use sanitizer, it’s wise to have a bottle of water on hand as well. That way, if your child’s hands become covered in dirt or sand you can rinse them off before applying the sanitizer. The C.D.C. says that sanitizer is less effective on dirty or greasy hands.

Finally, don’t assume that the children are the primary vectors of disease. Adults spread the virus more readily than children, Dr. O’Leary said.

  • Updated June 5, 2020

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      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

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    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

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    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

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      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

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      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“That’s why the adults that are supervising should be careful about staying away from other folks,” Dr. O’Leary said.

Some localities, especially dense urban cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, have decided that playgrounds present too much of a risk right now.

“The day is coming, it’s not here yet, but the day is coming we’ll be able to open up them again,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said during a news conference on Thursday. “We don’t have a timeline yet.”

Jane Meyer, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said in an interview this week that there are no immediate plans to reopen playgrounds in New York City, in part because playground equipment makes it tough for children to physically distance from each other.

“Depending on the age of the kid, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to control exactly how close they are,” she said. “Everything we do is weighing the risk against the reward.”

To give children more space to play, New York City has opted to close certain streets to vehicle traffic and will also be setting up water misters in some parks.

The National Recreation and Park Association has recommended that playgrounds stay closed until there is no longer widespread community transmission of the virus because playgrounds have a tendency to become crowded and it is difficult to keep surfaces clean and disinfected.

The C.D.C. has also said that playgrounds are difficult to keep safe.

“Now in reopening, we have to actually double-down on our diligence,” Mr. Cuomo said on Wednesday. If people continue to use hand sanitizer, stay away from large gatherings, wear masks, and stay physically distanced, he continued, “the virus spread will be contained.”

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