Coronavirus FAQs for Parents: Expert Tips on Playgrounds, Playdates, Coughs

Indoor play should be limited to family only at this time.
Indoor play should be limited to family only at this time.

Parenthood is all about keeping kids safe from harm, but there's no handbook for dealing with a pandemic like coronavirus (COVID-19). As cases climb into the tens of thousands in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) count—so do parents' concerns and questions. How can we protect our children who we've heard can carry the virus and still look perfectly healthy, while not hurting sitters, grandparents, and others in our orbit? Is a trip to the playground or the park OK?

The White House has advised all Americans to practice social distancing by not gathering in groups of more than 10 people. School, sports, and big birthday parties are off the table in many areas right now. Some states have even closed parks amid coronavirus concerns. But it's less clear how parents should manage neighbor pals, babysitters, and grandparent visits while sticking close to home. We took our most pressing parent questions to Leigh Grossman, M.D., a University of Virginia professor of pediatric infectious disease and author of The Parents' Survival Guide to Daycare Infections. Here's what the doctor, mother, and grandmother advises parents about outdoor time, handwashing, cleaning, childcare, and even coughs and fevers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

And while you're sticking close to home, check out our Coronavirus Guide for Parents, which has hundreds of ideas for keeping kids of all ages busy.

Is the playground safe? What about the park?

Dr. Grossman suggests avoiding playgrounds for now, including empty ones. "We think coronavirus can live on surfaces for several days," she says. "Even if you wash or sanitize your own kids' hands, you don't know if other kids who came through the playground before yours didn't, and smeared viral germs all over the jungle gym, slide, and more. Kids tend to climb and slide with their whole bodies, so they are bound to spread those germs on their hands and faces."

Open-air parks and trails are a different story, in Dr. Grossman's opinion. If your state or town has not set regulations prohibiting it, she is in favor of families going for a walk or bike ride together—with some extra precautions. Make sure to keep a distance between yourselves and others of at least 6 feet, which seems to reduce the risk of viral transmission, and don't touch any communal surfaces like public restrooms, water fountains, or signposts. Show little kids what 6 feet looks like before your outing to help guide them when they are walking, skipping, or pedaling along.

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Outdoor play can be OK as long as friends stay 6 feet away, or stick to game among siblings, such as this group.

Are playdates okay? What if they stay outside?

Realize that since it appears kids with coronavirus might not have symptoms, a potential playmate could be carrying and spreading the virus, all while running around like crazy. "The problem with playdates is it's hard to know for sure how clean another child's hands or home is," says Dr. Grossman.

The only type of playdates the doctor at this point is recommending for her own grandkids are outdoor "family playdates"—walks or bike rides with one other family, with at least one parent from each family closely monitoring the children to make sure kids keep more than 6 feet from their friends and friends' parents. Steer clear of carpools for now as well.

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Grandparents might need to keep their distance going forward as research shows that adults over age 65 are at higher risk for complications from coronavirus. 

What about the kids' grandparents? Should they stay away? 

The CDC has said that adults over the age of 65 are at higher risk for complications from coronavirus, as are adults with heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, and additional underlying health issues. Dr. Grossman advises limiting interaction between grandparents or older relatives and your children, even if everyone seems well. "The real challenge is if a grandparent lives at home or is a caregiver to children, in which case the elder should take care to avoid sharing meals, bathrooms, and communal family space with kids as much as possible—and avoid all kisses and hugs," says Dr. Grossman. For families not sharing a home with an older relative, visits can—and should—be avoided for now. Dr. Grossman herself is making the most of daily calls and FaceTime chats to keep connected with her grandkids.

Is it okay to hire a sitter?

A sitter can be sick without symptoms and not show it. "People can be most contagious in the time after they contract coronavirus but before they start feeling symptoms, which generally kick in two to 14 days later," she says. If having a babysitter over is a must, Dr. Grossman advises that parents make sure the sitter has not been diagnosed with coronavirus, been in close contact with anyone who has, or traveled to a CDC-designated Level 2 or Level 3 area within the past 14 days. Insist the sitter washes hands as soon as he or she arrives and periodically through the day or evening (especially before preparing food or changing or bathing a child), and avoid hugs, cuddles, or roughhousing.

How can we keep coronavirus germs out of our house?

Other than social distancing, the best way to avoid this new virus is to keep your and your children's hands clean, says Dr. Grossman. When coming in from outside, adults and children should immediately wash hands with warm, soapy water for at least 20 seconds, which the CDC says is the best way to clean hands of coronavirus. Out and about, be sure to pack hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol, which can be applied to children's hands periodically.

For babies, who frequently put their hands in their mouths, Dr. Grossman advises liberally washing a baby’s hands with soap and water if at home or using baby wipes on every nook and cranny of infants' hands and fingernails if you are out and about.

Frequently used surfaces in homes, like kitchens and bathrooms, can be sanitized of any viral particles with over-the-counter Lysol or Clorox cleaning products or a diluted bleach solution. Dr. Grossman advises a once-over of doorknobs, handles, and faucets at least once a day, and more if someone from outside your household has visited. For wiping down toys, she likes using a simple and inexpensive cleaning solution of rubbing alcohol (one part alcohol to five parts water). "You don't need to go crazy and clean every day if the toys have stayed in your home and no other children have played with them during the outbreak, but if your child has brought a toy in the car, stroller, or around town, definitely disinfect it as soon as you arrive home," she says. 

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Worrying cough or fever? Turn to your pediatrician first as they are clued into your child's health history.

My child has a cough, cold, or fever. Should we test for coronavirus?

Children have on average five to seven upper respiratory infections per year—some of which, ironically, are caused by a different kind of coronavirus than the pandemic—so if your child feels like a cold is coming on, it's not necessarily COVID-19, says Dr. Grossman. Most kids with the virus seem to have only mild symptoms of cough and fevers, and sometimes no symptoms at all. "I would watch your child closely to see if the cough or fever persists, and call your pediatrician for advice and instructions on when to follow up," she says.

What if your coughing or feverish child is among the eight percent of U.S. kids with asthma? "I would immediately call your pediatrician, who knows your child and his or her asthma pattern, and can tell you when and where to bring your child in for testing," Dr. Grossman says. Children with respiratory issues, such as asthma, cardiac problems, or immune deficiencies could be at higher risk for complications, and in Dr. Grossman's opinion, they should be tested and monitored.

Generally, with COVID-19, as with most health concerns, a call to your pediatrician is your best first step, Dr. Grossman says. Pediatricians are clued in to your child's health history and likely the local area's coronavirus situation and can guide you accordingly—or maybe just offer the reassurance that can be so valuable in these uncertain times.

Leigh Grossman, M.D., is the author of The Parents' Survival Guide to Daycare Infections. For more information about keeping your family well during the coronavirus outbreak, follow updates by the CDC as well as your local health department

Photos by Matt Nighswander

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