Masks on the beach and in beer gardens? C'mon

Face masks have their place, but what's really needed right now is a breath of fresh air and a dose of common sense to control Covid-19...
15 April 2021


A woman wears a protective face covering and glasses to ward off coronavirus infection


Face masks have their place, but what's really needed right now is a breath of fresh air and a dose of common sense to control Covid-19...

One very visible symptom of Covid-19 is the impact on the hospitality industry. I should know, I live opposite a pub. The chairs in the beer garden have sat empty for months as a doleful reminder of lockdown.

But this week the pumps hissed back into service and pints began sloshing into jugs again. Patrons emerged, glasses held aloft, with expressions like they’d uncovered the Holy Grail. Although, in some parts of the country, you wouldn’t see the ear to ear grins owing to the face mask mandated by some local authorities, even for people drinking outside.

Presumably the killjoys responsible are from the same intellectually bereft band of brothers that have got people on Spanish beaches wearing masks with their trunks and bikinis and are clamouring for a block on the use of AstraZeneca’s incredibly effective vaccine over fears of a side effect less likely than being struck by lightning. In fact, that’s a good point - why aren’t umbrellas banned for people sitting in pub gardens, just in case?

I might sound like I’m being flippant, but what’s really needed here is an injection of common sense. The outdoors is not the enemy, quite the opposite. And demonising outdoor activities, by pursuing walkers with drones, making social interactions unpleasant, and frightening people into not sitting on a park bench through fear of contamination, is likely to be counter-productive in the long run.

Apart from promoting lockdown fatigue and fuelling an existing pandemic of obesity and inactivity, it will undoubtedly drive people to indulge in covert indoor get-togethers where the absence of peer oversight means they’re much less likely to behave responsibly. In other words, it’s the indoor space that is the elephant in the room. This is a sentiment echoed recently in an open letter penned in Germany by specialists who work on the behaviour of aerosols – in other words, things like viruses that move through the air.

We know this well. As England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has pointed out many times, the risk of catching Covid indoors is far higher than through outdoor contact. The combination of fresh, humid air and sunshine dilutes and destroys coronavirus particles faster than you can say "nose swab".

On the flip side, the factor that really promotes Covid spread, the Germans emphasise, is time spent sharing recycled air with other people. The longer you spend doing that, and the more people involved, even if they’ve left the room by the time you come in, the more likely you are to encounter a sufficient dose of coronavirus particles to guarantee that one hits the bullseye and infects you. This is why most of the transmission events we detect happen in people’s homes. A stroll in the park is actually protective.

So what we should be doing now, while the weather is good, is encouraging people to get outside; and, while they’re out of the way, use the opportunity to rip the unhealthy guts out of our existing office and leisure spaces, install 21st Century ventilation and air purification systems, and make windows that can actually be opened. It’s the crowded, poorly-ventilated work, leisure and living spaces that are the demons, not the beer garden.


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