Fears about spreading COVID-19 at the beach ‘overblown’

Crowds gathering at beaches to enjoy the warm weather have stoked fears they could spread the virus, but evidence suggests they are among the safest places to be – as long as everyone is social-distancing.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews warned police could close beaches after crowds gathered at St Kilda beach on Friday, many not wearing masks or observing social distancing. “Don’t risk everything,” Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton wrote online.

But there is strong evidence being outdoors is far safer than being indoors, as the virus simply does not transmit as well outside.

There is also a correlation with warmer weather and a reduction in cases. And super-spreading occurs almost exclusively indoors.

“I think, based on what we know about transmission, that the beach is one of the safest places to be,” said University of Wollongong epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz.

Associate Professor Euan Tovey, a respiratory virus researcher at the University of Sydney, said there was little support for fears about transmission at the beach.

Police patrol St Kilda beach on Saturday after thousands of Melburnians swarmed to the foreshore the day before.Credit:Luis Ascui

“You are probably likely more at risk if you travel by public transport to the beach, or hang around in queues in a coffee shop or bar on the way home, than you are at the beach itself, especially if the wind is gently blowing and you maintain one metre between you," he said.

COVID-19 spreads through droplets when people cough, and potentially when they talk. Many scientists also suspect the virus can travel through the air in tiny particles over several metres, and accumulate over time.

This is a significant problem indoors, where the air can become stale.

But on the beach any tiny particles are likely to be quickly dispersed by the wind. Even if some viral particles reach you, they are likely to be low in number, so your chances of getting infected are lower.

Bondi Beach on Sunday.Credit:Edwina Pickles

“Wind quickly disperses any local aerosol build-up,” said Associate Professor Ian Mackay, a virus researcher at the University of Queensland.

“And there aren't usually a lot of shared shiny surfaces on a beach, to act as an infection risk either, and those there are, are exposed to sun and wind.”

A person’s risk of getting infected depends on how close they are to an infected person, how infectious that person is, how long they spend with them, and what the surrounding environment is like, said professor of respiratory medicine at the University of NSW Guy Marks.

“Outdoors there is a lot more ventilation. Therefore, everything else being the same, the risks in an outdoor environment should be substantially lower.

Little Bay beach, NSW, on Monday.Credit:Edwina Pickles

“Unless you are very close to a highly infectious person, you would suspect the risk would be pretty low.”

However, the beach only remains low-risk if sunbathers continue to observe good virus hygiene. If they don’t wear masks, are in contact for long periods of time, and shout or sing, there is a high risk of viral transmission.

"Hugging, crowding together for selfies and sharing food would all increase the risk of transmission,” said Dr Megan Steain, a virologist based at the University of Sydney.

People enjoying the beach may also be more likely to “let their guard down” and forget about social distancing, she said. Public toilets and crowded shops also posed significant risks.

Wind effectively disperses small particles, but experiments have shown it can push large virus-containing droplets an extra metre. The virus can travel as far as three metres from an infected person with the right gust, experiments suggest.

"If I cough, and it’s windy, it will travel,” said Victoria University immunologist Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos.

Professor Apostolopoulos said people should get used to living with the virus long-term given that, even if a vaccine is developed, there is a reasonable chance it will not stop the virus circulating.

She called for the federal government to roll out an education program, perhaps starting at school, teaching people how to stay safe.

“Go to the beach. We need to go out. But you need to wear a mask and keep your distance.”

Meanwhile, Sydneysiders headed to Bondi or Cronulla beaches on Monday afternoon have been asked to delay their trips to later in the day as the beaches approach capacity in line with social distancing restrictions.

The mercury hit 31 degrees in central Sydney on Monday.

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