No Masks, No Distancing: People Keep Gathering Outside and It's Causing COVID Outbreaks
This photo of the 2020 Sand Bar Bash party near Oshkosh has circulated around social media and news reports since the event occurred last weekend. Many fear the party will prove to be a superspreader event for the coronavirus. (Photo retrieved via Reddit)

People may be wrongfully assuming outdoor activity carries no risk of spread, experts say.

Two cases at Noah’s Ark Waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells. Fourteen cases at Camp Eagle Ridge in Ashland County. An ill-advised concert in Oshkosh almost certain to result in an outbreak. A postponed Milwaukee Brewers home opener due to infected St. Louis Cardinals players.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that while COVID-19 is less likely to be spread outside, it is still happening. The virus is spreading severely in Wisconsin, but at the same time people are itching to get outside and enjoy what’s left of summer to replace the canceled trips, sports games, parties, and concerts. 

“Those are sort of the hard decisions, about what do you actually not do?” said Dr. Ryan Westergaard, the top infectious disease expert with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

If information compiled by data analysis firm Unacast is any indication, people in Wisconsin are still choosing to do a whole lot. The company has tracked cell phone GPS data since late February to determine how mobile the country has been during the pandemic and whether people have been abiding by stay-home orders and social distancing recommendations.

“As we’ve been emphasizing that outdoors is safer than indoors, I think that has been misconstrued or misinterpreted to mean that, ‘Outdoors are so safe that the things I would do indoors, I don’t need to do because my risk is so low,’” said Dr. Jeffrey Pothof, chief quality officer for UW Health.

Wisconsin, like almost every state in the union, is currently getting an F grade from Unacast as public mobility has returned to pre-pandemic levels. During Gov. Tony Evers’ stay-home order, the state mostly wavered between a C and D grade, indicating most days saw a 25-55 percent reduction in movement. But that pretty much went out the window in the days and weeks after the Wisconsin Supreme Court killed Evers’ order.

As activity rose, so too did coronavirus cases. As of Wednesday, nearly 57,000 people in Wisconsin were infected and 970 have died, according to DHS data.

“If there’s a lot of community spread wherever these activities are occurring, then that’s going to increase the risk for anybody and everybody who’s coming from that community to gather,” said Dr. Ajay Sethi, an infectious disease expert and associate professor of population health sciences for UW-Madison.

However, Sethi cautioned that contact tracing may not account for being inside structures at outdoor places like camps or Noah’s Ark, which could lead to a higher probability of contracting the virus despite the mostly outdoor environment.

Noah’s Ark announced Wednesday it is closing for the rest of the season because two employees tested positive for COVID-19, despite the fact it seemed to be doing everything right by implementing temperature checks, distancing, mask-wearing, and limited guests.

The state currently has a mask mandate, but it applies only when indoors. Some local health orders have taken a lackadaisical approach to requiring masks outdoors as well, with Milwaukee’s local mask mandate providing literally no penalty for not wearing one outside and Green Bay’s forgoing an outdoor mask requirement entirely. 

But that shouldn’t be taken to mean masks and physical distancing aren’t necessary outside, especially if individuals are in prolonged contact with others, according to Potohf, Sethi, and Westergaard.

“If we can get 90 percent-plus adoption of those two things — that when people are out in public they wear face coverings and they keep six feet of distancing — if we could really do those well I think we could have a huge impact,” Westergaard said.

Yet people are still going to large events maskless. The potential for severe outdoor spread has been known since at least May, when DHS confirmed 72 COVID patients had reported attending a “large gathering” two weeks after about 1,500 people gathered for a protest to end the stay-home order.

Last month, several hundred people descended on the Town of Ringle about 15 miles east of Wausau for Herd Immunity Fest, a music festival that drew national attention for its insensitive name and the fact it was scheduled despite the pandemic. (For their part, event organizers renamed it to the July Mini Fest after the backlash.)

While no cases have been directly tied to Herd Immunity Fest, confirmed coronavirus cases in Marathon County have nearly doubled since then, according to county health data

Another ludicrous mass gathering occurred last weekend, when thousands of people packed in for the Sand Bar Bash in Oshkosh, nary a mask in sight despite the mandate. Winnebago County’s health department did not respond to an inquiry from UpNorthNews, but Health Director Doug Gieryn told the Oshkosh Northwestern in a statement that anyone who attended should self-quarantine.

Settings such as those are ripe for spreading the virus, even though they’re outdoors, health experts told UpNorthNews. Simply passing by someone is generally safe, but when there is a few minutes or more of exposure, the virus can build up in the outdoor air and infect others, they said.

“The virus is really pretty ruthless,” Pothof said. “It’s going to take any opportunity it can to infect us and I think it’s important to re-emphasize it doesn’t take much breaking the rules or bending the rules to have something happen, especially when community transmission is as high as it is.”