Doctors Explain How To Safely Play Outdoor Sports & Games Right Now

Close-contact sports are out of the picture for now.

by Mia Mercado

The summer of 2020 looks much different than any other year. Crowded pools, rooftop happy hours, and impromptu games of beach volleyball are less of a chill hang and more a cautionary tale. “At this time, it is still quite risky to engage in close contact sports regardless of your community's number of COVID-19 cases,” Michael Richardson, MD, One Medical office medical director based out of Boston, tells Bustle. If you’re looking for which outdoor sports and games are safest to play during the coronavirus pandemic, your options are limited but not completely eliminated.

COVID-19 has impacted sports at every level, from youth sports to the NBA and NFL to the Olympics. While some sports organizations have slowly started resuming activities — for example, the MLB is currently in spring training — everyone is rethinking what their seasons will look like for the coming year. Even if you aren’t playing at a national level, with thousands of spectators in the crowd, there are still necessary precautions you’ll need to take if you’re considering playing any kind of sport. “When you mix contact sports with many people who aren't all getting tested every week (as the pros are doing),” says Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease biologist from Virginia and research associate at the French National Institute for Development “that becomes much more risky.” Your athletic ability isn’t the only consideration you’ll need to make when deciding on a game to play.


Avoid High-Contact Sports

Like with any other activity, one of the key rules you’ll want to abide by is social distance as much as possible. “At the moment, any gathering that does not allow you to socially distance and wear a mask is risky,” Dr. Richardson says. “It is still quite risky to participate in sports, but the level of risk may be lower in sports that allow you to distance yourself from others and wear masks. As the Minnesota Department of Health sport guidelines also state, the more physical contact between people, the greater risk in spreading coronavirus.

Rugby and American football are definitely out, says Dr. Abbate. Per the National Federation of State High School Associations’ sports guidelines, other examples of high-risk sports include lacrosse and wrestling. Some, like The Oregonian, include basketball as a higher-risk sport depending on how many people are playing, where you’re playing (indoor vs. outdoor), and how much close contact you have.

Sports that don’t rely on close interaction provide the lowest risk of transmission. Activities like golf, individual swimming, frisbee golf, tennis, and staggered running don’t require shared much/any equipment and can be done while abiding the six-foot social distancing rule. However, any sort of group activity comes with some amount of risk. Being diligent about proper social distancing and sanitizing shared equipment (e.g. a volleyball) as often as possible will help lower that risk. “Kick a soccer ball, tap a field hockey ball, or throw a frisbee back and forth, or shoot on a goalie,” Dr. Abbate recommends, “but don't play an actual game that involves having to make physical contact with someone else.”

Limit The Number Of Shared Surfaces

If you’re wondering whether it’s safe to swim in pools during the COVID-19 outbreak, there’s no evidence that coronavirus spreads through water. However — and this is a significant “however” — person-to-person transmission can still happen if you’re in a crowded pool or in close quarters with other people sunbathing. If you can’t stay more than six feet away from people in the pool, it’s best not to go in. Additionally, it’s best to avoid as many shared surfaces as possible. Be extra cautious while using bathrooms or changing rooms. Make sure you’re sanitizing your hands. Wear sunscreen. (That has nothing to do with coronavirus but you should still be wearing sunscreen.)

Work out centers are basically made of shared surfaces. In the wake of many gyms newly reopening, places like a West Virginia Planet Fitness are already advising guests to quarantine after possible COVID-19 exposure at the gym. Bringing your own water bottle, snacks, and whatever equipment you can (rackets, gloves, bats, etc.) can reduck your risk of exposure at the gym.

Here are some other tips from the CDC recommendations for youth sports that definitely apply to athletes of every age:

  • Stay home if you’re sick or have been around others who are sick.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer before and after playing and before and after sharing equipment.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes.
  • Don’t spit.
  • Bring your own equipment if possible.
  • Don’t share towels, clothing, or any items you use to wipe your face or hands.
  • Keep your belongings separated from others (e.g. your gym bag) when it’s not in use.
  • Avoid physical contact, like high fives, handshakes, fist bumps, and hugs.

The CDC doesn’t explicitly encourage spirit fingers, but they are definitely a safe option.


Wear A Mask

If people are required to wear masks during childbirth, wearing a mask during your recreational tennis game isn’t an absurd request. It’ll keep you from getting another person’s respiratory particles in your mouth and vice versa, something that can happen if you're huffing and puffing during a game. “Your sweat can’t infect someone else,” Dr. Abbate clarifies, “but if you wipe your mouth without thinking about it then hit a ball that someone else has to handle to serve, you might as well be shaking hands.”

Dr. Richardson recommends you practice what he calls “the COVID trinity”: social distancing at least six feet, wear a mask, and have good hand hygiene. These three easy things will help dramatically reduce your risk of infection. Again, while your options may be limited, there are still outdoor games and sports you can safely play with friends like tennis, golf, or frisbee. You'll just have to find a contact-free way to celebrate your victories.


Dr. Jessie Abbate, an infectious disease biologist from Virginia and research associate at the French National Institute for Development

Michael Richardson, MD, One Medical office medical director based out of Boston