How To Reduce The Risk Of COVID-19 During Playdates, Real Dates And Grandparent Visits

No social interactions are completely safe, but isolation isn't risk-free either. A doctor offers advice on how to leave the house again.

A photo of a grandmother and little grandchild wearing facemask walking together in sunny summer park.

(Photo: iStock)

When Dr. Susy Hota imagines an ideal day off, her mind wanders to a leisurely afternoon browsing through stores and trying on clothes before stopping at a restaurant for a bite to eat. It’s the type of day that once seemed so simple but is now nearly impossible.

“Trying on a pair of sunglasses can actually be hazardous now,” says Dr. Hota, the medical director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto. As Canadians continue to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, aimlessly milling about in a store isn’t considerate to people lined up in physically-distanced queues waiting for their turn to shop. And while many provinces are gradually allowing restaurants to reopen, capacity is greatly reduced to accommodate physical distancing.

Provinces are also beginning to give the green light to swimming pools, summer camps and hair salons, but with various restrictions. Figuring out what behaviours are safe is not straightforward, because “nothing is risk free,” says Dr. Hota. “We all have to evaluate what our risk tolerance is.”

The only way to be completely safe from COVID-19 is to stay home, without you or anyone you live with coming within six feet of another person. Everything else is “risk mitigation,” says Dr. Hota, including public health guidelines that remain in place across the country, such as physical distancing, frequent hand washing, disinfecting surfaces and wearing a mask when staying two metres apart is not possible.

But staying home comes with its own risks, including mental health distress. People want and need to see friends and family, go to the doctor, and help small businesses survive.

So Chatelaine asked Dr. Hota to help us figure out how to assess the risk of leaving the house again. Off the top, she notes there are a few general factors to consider before any outing, including how many other people will be around, whether it’s possible to keep adequate physical distance and if not, whether wearing a mask will be comfortable. She also offers some more specific advice for a few common situations.

We also spoke to a few Canadians about how they’re balancing the risks of the coronavirus with the risks of isolation, alongside public health advice and the realities of their lives. As always, those who are symptomatic or may have been exposed to COVID-19 need to get tested and, until the results show up, stay home.

What to consider when planning play dates

While a small proportion of children have become seriously ill from COVID-19, the majority of the infections seen in children in Canada are fairly mild, based on current evidence. Currently, all provinces have reopened daycares and childcare centres, albeit with reduced group sizes and new guidelines for parents and staff. Certain provinces, including B.C. and Quebec, also reopened schools.

Outside of the classroom, parents are left to navigate play dates on their own—which Dr. Hota says allows them greater control over the environment and potential risk factors. With kids, especially toddlers and young children, physical distancing is impossible, so Dr. Hota recommends parents try out different types of play date activities to see what they’re comfortable with.

“I’m somebody who advocates for trying things and taking a graded approach,” says Dr. Hota. “So you can try it out with your children and see how it works. If it’s not working well, you hold back for a little bit until we feel like we’re in a better place where it might be safer to have those kinds of interactions.”

That’s exactly what Bobby and Ananda Umar did. The Toronto parents didn’t organize an in-person play date for their children—Nyal, 11, and Ryah, 9—until early June. After three months of Zoom pajama parties and other at-home activities, the Umars agreed to a socially distant get-together with their “best parenting friends” at a park outside of the city.

“The parents who were there were aligned with who we are and our values, and were taking precautions which made us comfortable as well,” says Bobby. Everyone involved discussed physical distancing and safe (kicking a soccer ball) versus unsafe (frisbee) activities before the playdate.

The Umars have also gone on multiple hikes with family friends, maintaining distance while walking. Dr. Hota’s children have played charades and have had water gun fights and dress-up parties (where each child has their own selection of dress-up items to choose from).

Parents organizing play dates should definitely have open discussions about their COVID-19 risks and safety approach, says Dr. Hota. It works best when families have similar philosophies about hand washing and physical distancing. Is anyone in the household showing symptoms? How many other families are in their bubble?

She also notes that we don’t fully know how much children may be driving this pandemic because it’s been challenging to study the rates of the virus among children and whether they are spreading it to their families.

What to consider when dating

Sex, kissing and intimacy inherently go against physical distancing guidelines, which presents a unique challenge for couples who don’t live together. Sam (who asked to use a pseudonym) started seeing her partner in November. By March, the pandemic forced a conversation about exclusivity, not only to define their relationship but also to better assess their risk of exposure to the virus.

The Toronto couple stayed separate for a few weeks, but by mid-April decided to continue seeing each other, and being intimate, with some added precautions. Sam lives with her family so she only spends time with her partner at his Toronto apartment, where he lives alone. In addition to frequent hand washing and wiping down surfaces like her phone, Sam also disinfects her car after visiting him, to minimize the risk to her family. The couple also limit social gatherings and maintains physical distance with their friends when they do see them.

“It’s not 100 percent safe, but we’ve mitigated as much risk as possible while seeing each other,” says Sam. Now that Ontario has allowed up to 10 people to form a “social bubble,” Sam’s partner is included in her family’s bubble.

For those not in established relationships, Dr. Hota says open communication is the best way to mitigate risk. “If you’re at a point where you’re really connecting with somebody and you want to take it to the next level of being more physically intimate, you have to be willing to trust that person and accept the risks of that,” she says.

What to consider when visiting seniors

Connie Rice, 56, hasn’t been inside her parents’ Vancouver home since March. Rice does groceries, prescription pickups and other errands for her parents, who are 86 and 91, in order to ensure that they can stay home. B.C. began allowing social bubbles in May, but Rice took extra precautions since she was doing the shopping and going on walks with friends.

A teacher, Rice is now back in the classroom, too. “I don’t want to put my parents at risk at all so we still keep a far distance and we don’t come into contact at all,” she says. Their visits, so far, have been from a distance, such as with Rice and her family on the lawn, and her parents seated on their front porch. They also did a larger, but still socially distanced, get-together in their backyard.

Caring for seniors carries an elevated risk, as people over the age of 65 are considered more vulnerable to COVID-19. In situations where families are unable to maintain physical distancing, Dr. Hota says wearing a mask is worthwhile, as is frequent hand washing and disinfecting surfaces. When visiting indoors, she advises opening windows to improve ventilation and, if they can tolerate it, have the seniors wear masks as well.

What’s challenging, says Dr. Hota, is that there isn’t a lot more to offer or any new, groundbreaking advice that has emerged. Instead, we have to stick to the basic infection control measures that have been working so far. “It’s not perfect,” she says. “Risk mitigation is never going to get you to zero, it [just] helps you to overall control the situation…we just have to figure out how to do this and not tire of it.”