After months of eerie emptiness, Dubai’s play areas, pools and water parks are finally ready to be filled with children once again.

But, as we tear down the barricade tape and dust off those swings and water slides, it is easy to forget that the virus has not actually vanished. Although recovery rates are high and the curve has dipped dramatically, there are still hundreds of new cases of Covid-19 being reported every day, and we are all well aware of the possibility of a second wave.  So how safe is it to take our little ones back to these public play facilities?

“It is impossible to take away all risk of contracting the virus at a place like a playground or pool, where there are large numbers of people who might have different views about social distancing and hygiene,” says Dr Fiona Rennie, Family Medicine Specialist at Genesis Healthcare Clinic in Dubai.

But it’s a question of weighing up the potential risk against the benefit of being able to restore some sense of normality - for our children’s mental and physical health, as well as for the economy. If you’re taking your little ones out to enjoy public play facilities in Dubai during the pandemic, here are some ways that you can mitigate the risks:

Stay outside

It may be hot outside, but it is far safer - in terms of the virus risk - to be playing outside than inside, says Dr Genesis’ Fiona Rennie. “Outdoor playgrounds and pools have the benefit of fresh air and more space between people than indoor spaces. If you are going to leave home than it is safer to be outside, where the airflow can help dilute the virus, than in a mall, where there is less airflow.”

“Indoor spaces, with limited air exchange or recycled air and lots of people, are concerning from a [virus] transmission standpoint,” says Dr Erin Bromage, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, who studies the immunological mechanisms responsible for protection from infectious disease. He says that the vast majority of all virus transmission events happen indoors, with people closely-spaced, with lots of talking, yelling or singing: “Interestingly, of the countries performing contact tracing properly, only a single outbreak has been reported from an outdoor environment (less than 0.3% of traced infections),” adds Dr Bromage.

However, in the heat of the UAE, make sure you’re being sun smart, so as not to run into any other health issues: “Hot weather can affect your baby or child because their bodies cannot adjust to changes in temperature as well as adults,” says Dr Rennie. “Babies and children sweat less, reducing their bodies' ability to cool down, and they generate more heat during exercise than adults. Babies and young children are at greater risk of dehydration and heat stroke than adults and are not able to advise you that they are overheating.”
 It is best to visit pools or playgrounds in the cooler parts of the day, advises Dr Rennie - either early morning or late evening - and be sure to continually hydrate your children, use sunblock and keep them out of direct sunlight.

Be aware that while indoor kids’ clubs in hotels - which are also now allowed to run at full capacity in Dubai -  may be a cooler way to enjoy play facilities, they have a higher risk of virus transmission because of the reduced air flow.

Be aware of surfaces

Scientists have found that SARS-CoV-2 remains viable for up to 72 hours on plastic and steel surfaces, and for up to 8 hours on copper and cardboard surfaces. We also know that it is possible for someone to become infected by the virus through touching a contaminated surface, and then touching their nose, mouth or eyes (although this is not thought to be the main way that the virus spreads). So hard plastic and steel playground surfaces, touched by multiple children’s hands, are a potential risk.

Although Dubai Municipality’s guidelines and protocol for reopening requires that playground equipment is sanitized at least once every hour, frequently washing or sanitizing your child’s hands will reduce this risk further. “If there aren’t bathrooms nearby to wash children hands regularly then carry hand sanitizer along with a bottle of water to rinse any  sand or dirt off the hands before using sanitizer (hand sanitizer is less effective on dirty or greasy hands),” says Dr Rennie. “If eating at the playground make sure you clean your child’s hands first and also clean their hands after leaving the playground.”

However, public bathrooms can be a significant risk in themselves, Dr Bromage says: “Bathrooms have a lot of high-touch surfaces, door handles, faucets, stall doors. So [virus] transfer risk in this environment can be high. We still do not know whether a person releases infectious material in feces or just fragmented virus, but we do know that toilet flushing does aerosolize many droplets. Treat public bathrooms with extra caution (surface and air), until we know more about the risk.”

While you may think that the scorching sun here in the UAE could act as its own disinfectant for pathogens on outdoor play equipment, the evidence is currently unclear. The World Health Organisation originally debunked the role of sunlight in killing coronavirus as one of its WHO myth busters. However, a study published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases on 20 May 2020 concluded that simulated sunlight rapidly inactivates SARSCoV-2 on surfaces. Nonetheless, the researchers pointed out that local weather conditions and droplet size could affect the survival of the virus on surfaces, so more research is needed to fully understand the impact of sunlight on viral inactivation.

Keep a social distance

One thing the Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) is very clear about: the virus that causes Covid-19 is spreading very easily and sustainably between people (even by people who show no symptoms of having the virus), and the more closely a person interacts with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of Covid-19 spread. 

Social distancing is paramount in order to curb the spread – and it’s also incredibly difficult with to enforce with children. Dubai Municipality’s protocol for reopening outdoor playgrounds requires that people maintain a two-metre distance from each other – including not using adjacent swings if there is not a sufficient distance between them - and that in play areas where it is difficult to do so there should be a maximum capacity limit.

“If a playground is very busy with children, consider coming back a different time of the day when it is quieter especially if you have small children that do not understand social distancing,” says Dr Rennie. She adds that adults spread the virus more readily than children so adults should make sure that they socially distance in the playgrounds and pool areas as well.

Wear face masks

Although only children over the age of six years are required to wear face masks in Dubai, the CDC recommends that children over the age of two years wear face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (eg between children, in playgrounds), and there is an increasingly compelling body of evidence that wearing face masks can greatly decrease the risk of virus transmission.

As a result, if your child is aged between three and five years old and can tolerate a face mask and wear it properly, you may want to encourage them to wear one even though it is not mandatory.

Surgical masks and cloth masks are both worthwhile, as even cloth masks can help catch droplets produced when someone sneezes or coughs. “In the over two-year-olds masks should be worn in outside spaces,” says Dr Fiona Rennie from Genesis Clinic in Dubai. “However if your child is continually touching their face or readjusting the mask then wearing a mask can be counterproductive and increase the risk of contracting the virus. Children under two should not wear a mask because of the risk of suffocation.”

Be pool savvy

There is nothing more inviting than a chilled swimming pool on the hot desert days we’re having at the moment, but how safe is it to share swimming pool water with lots of other bodies in a public setting?

The CDC says evidence suggests that Covid-19 cannot be spread to humans through most recreational water. Additionally, “proper operation of these aquatic venues and disinfection of the water (with chlorine or bromine) should inactivate the virus that causes Covid-19.” So, if you trust that the swimming pool chlorine levels are being properly maintained (as they should per Dubai Municipality requirements) then being in the same swimming pool as others should be relatively safe.

However, social distancing rules still apply; if you are playing with, paddling next to or queuing for a water slide within two metres of people not within your family, the same risk of virus transmission through aerosol droplets is still there (and it is not recommended to wear a face masks while in the swimming pool).

Dr Fiona Rennie adds: “Although chlorinated water kills viruses so it is likely that Coronavirus would not survive in pool water, it will survive on surfaces around the pool, sun loungers etc. It is important to maintain social distancing while in a swimming pool. Masks should be worn in all outside areas and only taken off when swimming in the pool.” 

Balance the risks 

If you are taking your child to a public play facility where there are other children then it is impossible to take away the risk of catching coronavirus completely. However, more than three months of social isolation and being cooped up indoors can have its own risks for our children’s mental health. “There have been many reports of behavioral issues, anxiety, and milestone and sleep regression in children  during lockdown which indicates that they are under stress,” says Dr Rennie. “Going out, fresh air, with room to run and play is definitely good for a child's mental health and restores some level of normality. It is safe providing social distancing is observed and masks are worn when appropriate.” 

Read more:

How to protect children from the ‘invisible’ impact of lockdown

Covid-19 and face masks: Why children might need to wear them most of all

The New Normal: How UAE schools will look in September 2020