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From pools to beaches to barbecues, health experts weigh the coronavirus risk tied to summertime fun

Cailin Healy, and an unidentified friend, both of Calabasas, take a selfie together as beach-goers enjoy warm summer-like weather amid state and city social distancing regulations mandated by Gov. Newsom in Huntinton Beach, CA, on April 22, 2020.

As the U.S. begins to reemerge from months-long quarantines intended to slow the spread of Covid-19 and spring rolls into summer, planning for the warmer weather during a global pandemic, from backyard barbecues to pool parties, now prompts an abnormal question: Is it safe? 

There's no activity that doesn't come without risk, public health and infectious disease professionals warn. However, there are some that may have reduced risk of Covid-19 infection or ways to safeguard yourself and others from the disease, they say.

"You can't eliminate risk, but you can decrease it," said Dr. Preeti Malani, chief health officer and professor of medicine and infectious disease at the University of Michigan. 

Not all activities have been given the green light from every state in the U.S., so where someone lives, even depending on the county in some instances, will allow for greater freedoms. People with underlying health conditions and those over the age of 65 are still considered at increased risk of serious illness from the coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is where personal responsibility comes in. Even though you don't think that you're affected and you don't care if you get infected, you still have a responsibility not to infect others," said Dr. David Hardy, an adjunct professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who specializes in infectious diseases. 

CNBC spoke to a group of infectious disease and public health experts across the country to gauge how much risk is associated with some common summer activities and discover ways to make these activities safer. 

In any instance, experts stress the need to follow key physical distancing guidelines, like staying at least 6 feet away from others and limiting how long you interact with people. Wearing a face covering and opting for spaces that have enough air flow are also good ideas. Outdoor activities generally pose a lower risk than indoor. 

"It's a matter of a spectrum from low risk to high risk," Ryan Demmer, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota said. "And there are several factors that contribute to where you might find yourself on that spectrum." 

Pools and beaches can carry little risk depending on the environment outside the water, experts say. Being in the water is not a risk, but that could change depending on someone's ability to remain distant from other swimmers, especially if they're not wearing a face covering. 

"A crowded pool deck, waiting in line to get into a beach area, waiting at a public restroom where there's a lot of crowding together. Those are the things I worry about," Malani said.

Try to avoid the beach or pool on a weekend when it's likely crowded and consider going during a weekday, in the morning or late in the day, she said. 

Glen Mays, professor of health policy at the Colorado School of Public Health, added that beaches, when compared to pools, could provide a few more degrees of freedom since they offer greater space to socially distance. 

"You don't want to go to a beach or a pool that's kind of oversubscribed, where it's going to be more difficult to maintain a minimum of 6-foot social distance," Mays said. 

Demmer, referencing images of packed pools at the Lake of the Ozarks on Memorial Day, noted that the pool wasn't the problem in that instance, but rather the gathering of a large group of people in close proximity for extended periods of time. 

"That's a breeding ground," he said. 

Some states, such as Texas, Colorado and Georgia, will allow either overnight or day camps to resume operations with health precautions, although experts warn they can be high risk for the coronavirus' spread once campers return home. It's also difficult to maintain social distancing guidelines at camps where group activities are usually encouraged.  

Dr. Aaron Glatt, a doctor at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital and a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said that overnight camps could be less risky if campers were checked for symptoms before arriving and if there are little to no visitors for the duration of the camp. 

"One could theoretically create like a bubble of the people in the camp," Glatt said. He said day camps involve additional issues because it's harder to control the flow of people. 

Families who send their children to summer camps also have to consider the risk they pose once they return home and their potential to transmit Covid-19 to others who may be more susceptible to serious illness, Hardy said.

"The kid is exposed to lots of other kids and lots of other families and lots of other places around the country, perhaps. Kid brings the virus home and doesn't even have any symptoms or very minor runny nose or slight cough. That kid becomes the spreader to the parents, the grandparents and anyone else that kid comes into contact with," he said. 

Although airline ticket prices have dropped to enticingly low levels, traveling to a different state in an airplane, where people are in close proximity to one another with little air flow, is considered high risk, experts say. The CDC still advises against all nonessential travel. 

"I would caution against the enticement of a cheap flight just to go, 'Oh, I think I'll just go to California because the flight is like $50 or something,'" Malani said. 

Health experts still don't fully know how safe airports are, she added, but avoiding public transportation and traveling by car could reduce the risk. If traveling is essential, travelers should consider quarantining for two weeks before their trip, maintain a safe distance from other people when traveling and wear a face covering, she said. 

If you can, try to space yourself out on the plane and sit far away from others, she said. Shorter flights will pose a lower, although still present, risk. 

"I think most of the airlines are doing a good job, but you could end up sitting next to someone who could infect you," Malani said. 

Cindy Prins, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said that travelers should also consider what would happen if they became infected and seriously ill at their destination. 

"Where are you going to go? Are you going to be able to access health care where you're going? If you're fortunate enough to be insured, is the insurance even going to cover you if you're out of network," Prins said. 

Outdoor actives in general are going to carry less risk than indoor since greater air flow reduces your chance of encountering a large dose of airborne virus, health experts advise, especially activities without large concentrations of people. 

Events like parades, festivals, sporting events and concerts, are still considered high risk because they bring large groups of people in close proximity for an extended duration of time. Physical or close-contact sports like basketball, soccer or football are also high-risk activities. 

"Those are the ingredients that are a risk. Large groups of people in close proximity for more than five or 10 minutes. Those are the things that we want to avoid," Mays said. 

Hiking and camping would be considered low risk if you maintain a distance from other people and wear a mask when passing others on a trail, Mays said.

Outdoor sports like singles tennis and golf, where it's easy to maintain a 6-foot distance and avoid physical contact, is also considered low risk, he said. 

"Other sports are more problematic, thinking about actual soccer games where you've got large teams and in close proximity, those can be more problematic and could be high risk," Mays said. 

Demmer said that it's important to remember that many cases of coronavirus are asymptomatic, which can be especially dangerous when playing sports that require close, physical contact with friends who aren't showing symptoms. 

"I've told friends that it's probably fine if their kids are throwing a baseball back and forth, as long as that's where it stops and they don't end up playing basketball five minutes later," he said. 

When it comes to gatherings with family and friends at outdoor picnics and barbecues, the fewer the people, the lower the risk, health experts say. Especially if you're able to separate into family units and avoid physical interaction. 

Instead of taking face masks off to eat at a gathering, Malani suggests eating at home and then gathering with friends and family outside afterwards. 

"What I think people need to do is reframe summer. Have fun with smaller groups, but have fun because this is a long road," Malani said. 

Before attending a gathering, consider all the possible scenarios where people might interact and try to avoid them ahead of time, Demmer said. For instance, warn young children that it could be dangerous to physically interact with grandparents before you make a visit. 

"If you're planning to go visit family and you're going to do things like wear a face mask, be socially distant, just talk it through and what that encounter normally entails and what you do at different points along the way if you want to minimize risk," he said.