How can cancer patients and their families safely enjoy summer during the COVID-19 pandemic?

After almost three months of social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), you might be itching to get out and enjoy this summer.

But the COVID-19 pandemic remains a serious public health threat. So, how can cancer caregivers and their families balance their desire for a break with the need to stay safe from COVID-19? Is it safe to go to the beach or stay in a hotel? If not, are backyard barbecues or family pool parties OK?

We spoke with infectious diseases and infection control expert Roy Chemaly, M.D., and Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in our Integrative Medicine Center, for guidance on how to relax and socialize responsibly this summer.

Our family wants to go on vacation during the coronavirus pandemic. Is it safe for us to travel this summer?

Until there’s a vaccine, herd immunity or a proven, effective treatment for COVID-19, there will always be some risk of contracting the virus, even in our own communities. That’s why we’re still advising patients to stay at home whenever possible, wear masks while out in public, and maintain consistent social distancing, disinfection, and handwashing practices,” says Chemaly.

That being said, a road trip taken with members of your own household is probably the safest option. “But air travel is inadvisable right now, particularly for immunocompromised patients,” Chemaly says. “And taking a cruise is out of the question.”

Is it safe to visit my friends or extended family during the COVID-19 pandemic? Can I have a socially distant outdoor gathering?

“Interacting with anyone from outside of your immediate household will always have some element of risk to it, but outdoor events like backyard barbecues are OK, provided everyone is practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and staying at least six feet apart,” says Chemaly.

If you do have a socially distant outdoor gathering, the hosts and the guests should wear masks the entire time. “And there should be no hugging, kissing or close contact with anyone outside your household,” Chemaly says. “Immunocompromised patients especially need to be very cautious with whom they interact, because they’re more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.”

Is it safe to stay in a hotel? How about renting a beach house?

Chemaly says a beach house is better than a hotel, simply because there will be fewer people around. “But catching the virus by touching a contaminated surface isn’t as big of a risk as droplet transmission, or catching the coronavirus from particles sneezed, coughed or exhaled into the air,” Chemaly adds. “So, the main issue is the number of people around you and how close they get.”

He notes that both hotels and beach house managers have been promising to do extra cleaning in between guests. “Still, it can’t hurt to bring a can of your own disinfectant spray, and wipe down all the high-touch surfaces in the rooms before you get settled,” says Chemaly.

What about using public restrooms?

“As long as a public restroom isn’t overcrowded and you wash your hands thoroughly after using one, it’s fine,” Chemaly says. 

Is it safe to go to the beach during the coronavirus pandemic? What about a public swimming pool?

Outdoor venues like the beach or pool are fine, provided there aren’t so many people there that you can’t maintain social distancing.

“You’re not going to get the virus from the water, whether it’s a pool or the ocean,” Chemaly says. “Again, the main concern is the number of people around you and their proximity to you, because you don’t know where they’ve been or who else they’ve been in contact with.”

How can I alleviate my loved ones’ feelings of social isolation when we’re at home this summer?

“The great outdoors are a natural mood enhancer, so we encourage you to spend as much time outside as you can,” Powers-James says. “Even if that just means being on your patio or taking a walk around the neighborhood, feeling the sun on your face and smelling the flowers in bloom can lift your spirits and reduce anxiety and depression. Provided you maintain proper social distancing, outside is one of the safest places you can be.”

You might have to get a little more creative if you’re having a “staycation,” she says, but there are still lots of fun, easy, and free or low-cost things you can do. “For instance, you can have a picnic, which makes any meal feel different and special. Just throw down a blanket and you’re ready to go. Or, stage a campout in your living room and make s’mores on the grill. Make popcorn and stream old home movies from your phone or computer onto your TV, so you can watch them on the big screen,” says Powers-James.

Dust off the board games, do arts and craft projects, or let your kids pick a menu and then teach them how to cook it. Start a garden in the back yard, or go old school and break out the sprinkler on the front lawn. Host a “no-touch” scavenger hunt where participants have to find pictures hidden around the house or in the neighborhood.

“Play hide and seek, make pillow forts, or read books together. Start birdwatching or have a creature hunt, where you count roly-polys or lizards,” adds Powers-James. “Visit museums or zoos online. Many are offering free virtual tours right now, so you can see exotic animals or priceless artworks from cities around the world without ever leaving the comfort of your couch.”

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.