Defining the outdoors has become an urgent matter in pandemic times.
With several parts of Canada in lockdown and indoor gatherings restricted or banned in others, rising COVID numbers and dropping temperatures create a dilemma for Canadians trying to stay connected: The only option is to socialize outdoors but being outdoors is becoming more and more uncomfortable.
As homeowners struggle to find the balance between staying safe and staying warm, many are unknowingly making the wrong choices. A tour through the neighbourhood reveals a group sharing a drink inside a transparent plastic bubble in a backyard, kids playing together in an enclosed glass porch and a gazebo completely encased in clear plastic wrap, raising questions about what truly makes a space outdoors and how we can safely get together with family and friends as we enter the holiday season and face the remaining winter months.
We’ve all seen some version of the slow-motion visualization of coronavirus-laden particles and aerosols projecting into the air as we sneeze, cough, breathe and talk. The conditions into which these droplets are released, however, makes a significant difference to how long they hang around, how far they travel, and ultimately, how efficiently they transmit the virus. Ventilation, the proximity of other people and even relative humidity alter the risk of virus transmission, which is why most experts agree that outdoor environments are safer than indoor ones.
“In an outdoor setting, ventilation dilutes the air so those aerosols and larger droplets can dilute and move on,” says Toronto Public Health’s Associate Medical Officer of Health, Vinita Dubey. “That’s the environment we want to re-create when we want to lower the risk of COVID.”
This key metric for ventilation is known as the turnover rate or air-exchange rate – how many times the air changes in a space every hour.
“Informally, the typical air-turnover rate for an indoor space is one per hour or so and a space that we would really consider to be outside would have at least 10 times that,” says Jeffrey Siegel, a University of Toronto professor of Civil Engineering and indoor air-quality expert.
So what exactly is outdoors?
“There is no clear definition of what is an indoor space and what is an outdoor space,” Toronto architect Nicholas Koff admits. “Architecturally, the threshold between in and out is a partition or a wall that keeps people confined within a space.” The ambiguity is that walls can be solid, creating indoor environments, or they can be porous, breathable structures like pavilions and gazebos that function more like outdoor environments.
Koff shares an anecdote about a family acquaintance who played host to dozens of friends in his garage because he saw it as an acceptable compromise between indoor and outdoor space.
“Support spaces, like garages, sheds, and gazebos – any structure that’s kind of secondary to your house. Those are the biggest culprits.”
Because these types of spaces are outside of the house, they let the heat and cold in, making people think, “‘nature is coming in, I am outdoors’ but as soon as you have walls, you are in a confined space that limits airflow and that to me is the biggest problem.”
He adds that people are using this architectural ambiguity in their favour. “If you want to socialize, you’ll convince yourself that almost any space is acceptable.”
Dubey outlined Toronto Public Health’s position through a few common socializing settings.
A porch or sunroom with two operable windows?
“No! No. That counts as an indoor setting with the windows open.”
What about a tent with two sides open? “I would say that’s an outdoor patio setting. It’s very different for me than an indoor setting with just a small window open but the true definition of outside is outside.”
U of T’s Siegel suggests we count the number of walls.
“If there are two walls, you can consider the space at least somewhat outside. Three sides and it’s safest to think of it as an indoor space that is not well ventilated.” (Though he does suggest that it acts more like an outdoor space the closer you sit to the open side). “And if there are four walls, even with openings, you are looking at an indoor space.”
Ultimately, we need to ask if we are creating safe environments for socializing and if we should be socializing at all.
Koff says he believes “the only really safe thing is to be truly outdoors with no walls and masks on. If it’s raining, is it raining on you? That’s truly outdoors.”
And outdoors itself is not a sufficient condition, Dubey stresses.
“The first measure should be, if you’re sick, don’t see anyone. The second should be, keep your physical distance, wear your mask, wash your hands. We’re at the stage now we have to limit our contact with others. Indoors or outdoors, if you’re having close contact, it should be only with your household members.”
Siegel has a more flexible approach based on risk analysis and understanding one’s personal threshold for risk.
The “three big risk factors for COVID are poorly ventilated, crowded spaces that we spend a lot of time in. If you’re going to violate more than one of those, you should not be doing it.”
For example, if you are in a poorly ventilated space, reduce the amount of time you spend there. If you are going to be in a space for longer, which is the case for most social visits, do it somewhere that is properly ventilated.
Siegel has also weighed the risk that not socializing would have on his family and does host small, outdoor gatherings weekly – no enclosures, radiant heat with firepits and patio heaters (which he warns need to be plentiful enough that everyone isn’t crowding around one heat source), strict two-metre spacing, no guests with higher COVID risk and masks on except when eating. And, of course, winter clothes.
“The societal effects are pretty large so we should all err on the side of being cautious. The lower risk we all live for the next few months, the faster we can get back.”