Being Safe this Summer – Your Questions Answered

Over the past few months our lives have been upended in countless ways.  As the warm weather comes to the Jersey Shore many are hoping to enjoy some semblance of their favorite summer activities. However, this summer will be like no other summer we experienced. We need to figure out how we can be safe, smart, and still enjoy the beauty of the shore.

As a sociology professor and researcher, I use the scientific method and peer-reviewed data to understand our world. To have the safest summer possible, we need to follow the advice of the scientific community. This should not be a “one and done’ check-in.  COVID-19 is just a few months old; we are continuing to learn more each day as research is conducted, evaluated, and refined.  Scientific practice is an ongoing activity. We need to commit to the long game.

To best prepare for a safe the summer, I have reached out to Dr. Jeff Weisburg, a Specialist Professor in Biology at Monmouth University and Belmar resident.  Dr Weisburg is a research leader on immunology and disease. And this semester he is teaching a course “Microbiology in Health and Disease” at the college.

Since many people have questions about the preparing for a safe summer, I crowdsourced some questions online, poured myself an iced coffee, and sat down for a Zoom interview with Dr. Weisburg this afternoon.  What did I learn?

Staying Safe on the Beach—

Mary:  Many readers are interested in the best practices for wearing masks on the beach.  Is wearing a mask while sunbathing necessary if people are practicing social distancing?  What about wearing masks while walking on the boardwalk or exercising on the boardwalk?

Dr. Weisburg: If you are on the beach by yourself or with the people in your household, you do not need a mask.  However, I would have a mask handy.  If other people are getting a little too close to you on the beach, you should put on the mask.  And you must take into consideration the wind direction when you are on the beach.  If you are downwind of people, and even though they are six feet away, you should either move further away or put on a mask.  The safest place on the beach is the farthest location from others.  When you walk to the water, for example, you want to be aware of your surroundings and bring your mask.  On the beach I would always my mask with me (either in my hand or on my face)

There are couple of variables when we talk about the boardwalk.  When you are exercising (jogging, biking, or walking at a fast pace) you should not wear a mask.  However, when you are on the boardwalk with other people, you should wear a mask. For example, the way that the boardwalk looked last weekend in Belmar, I would wear a mask.  But if you are walking on an empty boardwalk, you do not need a mask. It is important to note that masks are used to protect others from your infections.  If someone sneezed in front of you on the boardwalk and you walked through it, if that person was wearing a mask, it will lower the amount of viral load that you can inhale.  This means that cloth masks are not preventing you from disease—instead you are wearing a mask to prevent others.  That is why that it is important that everyone wear a mask, so that everyone is protected.  It is a new common courtesy that we all will be following.


Mary: When I am at the beach, I am sitting alone in my beach chair more than six feet away from others to stay safe.  How safe are public bathrooms, showers, playground equipment and benches?  What precautions should I take?

Dr. Weisburg: This is all about hygiene.  You should be skeptical and think that everything around you (people and objects) has the virus on it.  When you use a public bathroom or shower, it is critical that you wash your hands immediately and use sanitizer. If benches or outdoor chairs are available, you should wipe them down before you sit.


Mary: I want to bring my 80-year-old mother to the beach this summer.  Is that safe for her?

Dr. Weisburg: Here there are a lot of variables and it very much depends on her health—does she have any underlying conditions?  If she is healthy and if you keep all the precautions (mask, social distancing, and hygiene), she could probably go to the beach.  However stay away from large groups of people—the further you sit from people, the safer.


Mary: Can my friends and I sit together on the beach, if we are six feet apart?  Can my children play with other children on the beach if they are six feet apart?

Dr. Weisburg: This is an example of how we will have to change our social interactions going forward.  There are new questions that we must ask of our friends and family members who are outside of our household before we can assess the risk.  We need to ask— “Have you been tested for COVID?”  and “Do you have family members with the disease?” and “Have you come into contact with someone who tested positive?”  You need to ask these questions and then you can decide if you can sit near each other.  And you must keep your social distance and wear a mask.  On the beach you also need to worry about direction of wind (as I mentioned before). You will be safer if you follow the social distancing and hygiene practices.

When we talk about kids, this is a tough question since it is often impossible to keep them six feet apart.  That makes it difficult to practice social distancing.  You need to do your homework on the family you are visiting. Ask those tough questions about if they have been tested and exposed.  And you need to do this each time you plan a visit, since this is a fluid situation.

It is also important to remember that a significant risk factor is time exposed to someone.  The longer you are exposed to an infected person, the greater the chance you will get infected.  If you are passing a friend on the boardwalk and stop to talk to them for a few minutes (practicing social distancing) that is much less risky than spending hours on the beach or boardwalk together.


Staying Safe in the Water—

Mary: What are recommendations for water safety in COVID in oceans and lakes?

Dr. Weisburg: This is something researchers are just looking at.  We know COVID can live in freshwater and saltwater but don’t know if there is enough viral load to infect someone.  Of course, when you are swimming in the water you need to maintain social distance.

Mary: Do pool chemicals kill COVID?  Is it safe to swim in a public pool or a neighbor’s pool?

Dr. Weisburg: If it is a pool with chlorine (and not a substitute), it may kill the virus. Again, you need to maintain social distance in a pool, just like you would anywhere else.


Boardwalk/BBQ Eating and Drinking—

Mary: When I order food from boardwalk restaurants is the packaging safe or should I take the food out of the packaging before I eat it on the beach?  Should I be wiping down the snack food packages that I picked up at the local store on my way to the beach?

Dr. Weisburg: You probably don’t need to change the packaging, but you should be sure to wash your hands before you eat.  And if you are not using your groceries immediately, you probably don’t need to wipe them down. But you need to wash your hands after you put the groceries away.

Mary: Can I share food and drink with friends on the beach as long as we are six feet away?  For example, if we have a pizza could we all take slices out of it, as long as we social distance?  Or if there is a pitcher of sangria in my backyard, can I share that with my neighbors safely?

Dr. Weisburg As long as you are social distancing and people are not grabbing the pizza at the same time or sneezing on the food, you should be okay.  The odds of getting COVID from food products are significantly much lower than the odds of getting infected by direct contact with someone who is infected.


Dispelling Myths—

Mary: One myth I have heard is that wearing a mask is unsafe and could lead to poisoning with your own breath.  Is there any scientific merit to that?

Dr. Weisburg: This is related to exercising.  If you are exercising you need to eliminate carbon dioxide, so you should not wear a mask. That could be a danger.  But if you are taking normal breaths and doing everyday things (walking boardwalk, shopping, etc.) then a mask will not negatively affect you, as long as you do not have any pre-existing conditions.

Mary: Are our own immunities to other diseases (such as flu and common cold) being compromised because we have been staying inside and not physically interacting with other people for two months?

Dr. Weisburg: There is no scientific merit to this.  Your immune system is not being compromised by staying inside.

Mary: Will the heat of the sun kill the virus?

Dr. Weisburg: The virus is not a living thing. This is because the virus cannot replicate by itself, instead it must live in a host. It is also important to note that it is not heat that will damage the virus.  It is the UV light from the sun that will affect the virus. In the summer, the sun is closer to the earth and UV light can possibly do damage to the virus.  In addition, in the summer, as the air becomes warmer, the air becomes more humid.  The humidity makes the air heavier.  When you breathe out the virus it cannot travel as far in the humid weather to other people.  The more humidity the less distance the virus can travel.

Mary: There have been some stories that MERS and SARS was spread via wind and sand on the beaches in the Middle East.  Is that true?  If so, is there any concern that COVID could be spread in that way on the beach?

Dr. Weisburg: Six feet is an estimate of what scientists think is how far the virus travels out of your mouth. There have been studies that when you sneeze and cough, your breath goes 27 feet away from you.  Can wind spread it?  Yes.  But we don’t know if a low or high wind is better for the virus transmission.

The other thing we know is that studies that were conducted in the Middle East were tied to sandstorms.  There is very little chance that you are going to get the virus from someone sneezing on the sand and then you touch later.


Final Thoughts—

Mary: Many people are quite interested in immunity research.  Are there any more updates?

Dr. Weisburg: In Wuhan, China people who had COVID did make specific antibodies to the virus.  That is a good sign, but it does not mean everyone will develop immunity to the virus.

Mary: What can we do now to try to lessen the effects of a possible second wave this fall?

Dr. Weisburg: Whenever possible we should keep the practices we had in place in March and April.  If you don’t have to travel, don’t.  Keep social distance. Wash your hands, Wear a mask.  That is our new normal until we have a vaccine or effective treatment.  And it is also especially important that people have a strong immune system (especially people over 40), so take care of your health now.

My concern is that if we have a second wave it could be driven by teenagers and young people who are not keeping social distance.  Socialness is a big part of their lives.  If they don’t follow the social distancing rules, they can pass COVID onto their parents and grandparents.

Mary: What haven’t I asked you that you want the public to know?

Dr. Weisburg: Testing and contact tracing will help us to get back to schools and work. However, it is important to note that while it will help us have some normalcy, we won’t be back to where we were. Everyone should be keeping a diary of everyplace you go and everyone you interact with in public.  This is important. If you do develop COVID you can contact trace back and alert others that you are infected.  They then can act accordingly. Hopefully we can do that.

There are well over 100 different vaccine trials going on, however the reality is that is probably sometime in 2021 that we will have vaccinations.  By January we will not all be vaccinated.  And just because you have the vaccine you won’t necessarily be immune to COVID.  Your own immune system is important here and impacts how you will react.

When we do open restaurants, outside dining is better than inside dining.  The flow of the air conditioning in a restaurant and other inside venues matter in spreading the disease and we must figure out safe ways to be in those spaces.

The big thing we need to do is to educate people, and especially those who do not have any science background, about the disease.  It is important for everyone to understand the science behind COVID. COVID should not be politized.  This is not about politics.  This is data and research from scientific studies.  Scientists are not trying to be evil in recommending lockdowns and other social distancing.  And the social distancing and other precautions impact scientists’ lives too.  I am a big live music fan and love going to concerts, but the science is clear that it is not safe to go to them this summer.  I miss live music more than anything, but it is just not safe.

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