Gotta get out? Take time to consider the risks and benefits

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Ultimately, many decisions are individual, but remember our individual decisions affect others. 

By Shannon Barbare, Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment | June 17, 2020

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Kate takes a walk in the vast, great outdoors during a lower-risk getaway recently.
Kate takes a walk in the vast, great outdoors during a lower-risk getaway recently.


For Kate and Katrina, staying home in a mixed-generation household was challenging. Space shrank and opportunities for alone time became rare as four adults were constantly in each others’ company. 

Some backyard “camping trips” provided respite as Kate finished a degree and worked remotely and Katrina struggled with the challenges posed by online higher education. Throughout the COVID-19 Stay-At-Home period, both were keenly aware that anything they chose to do might endanger the higher-risk individuals in the household. The couple lives with older adults who have underlying medical conditions.

"We had the conversation a few times about breaking the rules,” Katrina said, “but knowing we were responsible for others’ lives made us want to adhere to them.”

As restrictions eased and the semester ended, though, it was time to get away.

“We needed to get into the light and do something that allowed us more agency over our space and time,” Kate said. They did not feel comfortable taking a planned trip to a different state, so they canceled that. After checking state and local public health orders in Colorado, they settled on a short getaway to a Front Range mountain community.

Their personal “risk assessment” included considerations such as where to stay, how to prepare, and what to do once they were there. Kate and Katrina chose a short-term rental unit and loaded up their masks and supplies. They brought and prepared all their own food, and hiked in the surrounding area.

During this phase in Colorado, most things that can be done in small groups with prevention precautions in place are open. Some of us have privileges and resources that allow us to choose how and when to interact. How do we determine whether an activity is worth the risk?

To get some answers, we turned to former state epidemiologist Dr. Lisa Miller, now a professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“Unfortunately, there is no magic formula,” Dr. Miller said.

"People may make different decisions depending on how they balance the risks to personal and community health with their social, emotional and physical needs."

The No. 1 thing to consider, Dr. Miller said, is whether you have any extra risk of serious illness from COVID-19. People with extra risks should aim to limit social interactions as much as they can. And, as with Kate and Katrina, keep in mind whether the people you live with have any extra risks.  

After that, use these three factors to weigh your decisions:

1. How many people does the activity involve? The smaller the group size and the larger the space, the lower the risk.

2. Is the activity inside or outside? Outdoor activities pose less risk than the same activity indoors.

3. How valuable is this activity to me? What is the potential risk to myself and others? If something doesn’t add value but does add risk, reconsider. 

“Many people don’t care if their hair is a little longer, or they don’t eat in restaurants,” Miller said. “On the other hand, they might rely on exercise to stay physically and mentally healthy and may choose to participate in fitness activities.”

“Ultimately, many decisions are individual, but remember our individual decisions affect others. We’re all called upon to protect others -- essential workers, people with extra risks, and people who may not have the same privileges.”

Additional tips on lowering risk
  • Spend less time. For example, bring a shopping list to be efficient. Get your hair cut but not shampooed or colored.
  • Avoid unnecessary contact. For example, use curbside pick up and drop off when available for purchases and services, pay over the phone (ask if it’s not advertised), use less crowded spaces for outdoor exercise.
  • Be flexible. Change your plans if a situation looks crowded or you feel uncomfortable about the risk.
  • Be assertive. Regardless of outside pressure, follow your own plan to maintain the risk level that fits your situation; err on the side of less risk to both yourself and others.
  • Don’t touch. Avoid touching things if you don’t have to, and clean your hands afterwards when you do.
  • Remember the big three.
    • Wear a face covering.
    • Wash your hands frequently.
    • Maintain physical distance.

For more ways to think about the risks associated with various activities, visit our risks and benefits web page.