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The safest place to be right now is home, according to health experts and government officials

By Hannah Chubb
April 09, 2020 02:46 PM
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Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America
Credit: Michael Heiman/Getty

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to spread across the U.S., the world outside one’s own home has become an increasingly intimidating place.

With stay-at-home orders in place in 45 out of 50 states, most people should be spending the majority of their days indoors. But government guidelines do allow people to go outside for fresh air and exercise as long as they keep a safe social distance of at least six feet from others.

But are some outdoor places safer than others?

Recently, one scientist warned that people should avoid visiting the beach while social distancing outside, claiming that it is one of the most dangerous places to be if you’re trying to avoid catching the coronavirus.

Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, told the Los Angeles Times in an article published last week, “I wouldn’t go in the water if you paid me $1 million right now.”

Coronavirus Pandemic Causes Climate Of Anxiety And Changing Routines In America

She notes that, based on her previous research, she believes the virus can enter ocean waters through many different routes, including fecal matter, and could be unknowingly consumed by swimmers — similar to other viruses that cause gastrointestinal illness. She also suggests that the virus is light enough that it could be churned up into the sea spray and coastal air.

The six feet rule, Prather says, is not enough at the beach, where there are strong winds which can send the microscopic virus farther, faster.

As the Times pointed out, no similar statements/warnings have been made by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or local health agencies.

While Prather is basing her concerns on past studies of pathogens, scientists are still trying to determine how this particular virus — SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 — operates, specifically, how easily it can spread, and how long it can live on surfaces and in the air.

Robert A. Norton, a professor of Public Health at Auburn University and member of several coronavirus task forces, tells PEOPLE that scientists are still trying to definitively determine whether this new coronavirus can be transmitted this way. He wouldn’t rule it out, he says, but there is not yet enough evidence to say that beaches are more dangerous because of it.

“I don’t see that happening in the coastal waters of the United States,” he says.

But, he says, people should still avoid the beach.

“The bigger issue with beaches and coastlines is the people who congregate there,” Norton says. “The overwhelming scientific evidence clearly indicates that human-to-human transmission [of COVID-19] is still predominated by respiratory spread (i.e. sputum, droplet and mucous secretions) and surface contamination.”

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Norton also notes, “In general, there are a whole host of viruses that can be transmitted, under certain conditions, through water.”

These include, for example, Hepatovirus (the hepatitis A virus), and Norovirus (a common, contagious virus which causes vomiting and diarrhea). In these cases, Norton says, the viruses can be transmitted through water by the “fecal-oral route,” when sewage containing the virus ends up in the water.

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In March, beaches in Florida and California saw many people packing in close together — especially college students during spring break — despite state-sanctioned stay-at-home orders. Officials in both states have since closed beaches to the public.

The best way to avoid contracting or spreading coronavirus, officials say, is to practice social distancing, and only interact with those in your household.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also says that the best prevention methods are basic forms of hygiene — careful hand washing, avoiding touching the face and staying home at signs of illness.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. To help provide doctors and nurses on the front lines with life-saving medical resources, donate to Direct Relief here.