What Are the Rules for Play Dates During the Coronavirus Crisis?

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As coronavirus continues to spread across the globe, we’re working to answer the questions on many parents’ minds. This is a fast moving situation, so some information may be outdated. For the latest updates, read The New York Times’s live coronavirus coverage here.

Schools and day care centers are closing, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is telling us to limit close contact with others if the coronavirus is known to be spreading within our community. But what does close contact mean, exactly? Should we stop letting our kids have play dates? Is it OK to go to the museum or playground or indoor trampoline park? And what about birthday parties?

We know that kids tend to be at low risk for serious symptoms associated with Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and may have a fever, a dry cough or sometimes a runny nose. In other words, most kids don’t end up really sick — although those with compromised immune systems, heart or lung problems or diabetes may be more at risk.

Still, kids are likely able to spread the infection, and one key priority right now is to slow the virus’s spread through communities so we don’t overwhelm our health care system and end up with more serious cases at once than doctors can handle. We also want to protect our older family and community members, who are at much higher risk for serious symptoms.

Given all these complexities, it’s hard to know what to do about play dates. No one knows how long this pandemic will last, but what is certain is that we’ll all lose our minds if the characters from “Frozen” become our kids’ only social companions for the next four weeks.

There are no clear answers, experts say, and what you decide will largely depend on your comfort level and your situation. If none of your family members are at high risk, though, then play dates are probably fine.

“Just because schools are closed doesn’t mean you can’t have any interaction with other people, period,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, M.D., a pediatrician in Colorado and an executive member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases. However, he said, if you or your kids are at high risk or you have a grandparent living with you, you may want to be more cautious.

Dr. Eli Perencevich, M.D., an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of Iowa, agreed that some play dates are OK. To try to isolate yourselves and your kids from everyone else over the coming weeks “would be impossible,” he said.

If you do have play dates, though, it’s still wise to set limits and take precautions. Keep them small, maybe just two or three kids at a time, advised Saskia Popescu, Ph.D., an infection prevention epidemiologist in Phoenix. (With older, school-aged kids, you may be able to get away with slightly larger groups, because they tend to have better personal hygiene.)

Set ground rules with the other parents. Tell them you’re comfortable with a play date only if their child doesn’t have a fever or cough. Even cold symptoms like a runny nose or congestion might be enough to limit play dates, because at least one small study suggested that the coronavirus could resemble a cold in some individuals.

If all kids seem healthy, you’ll still want to limit the spread of germs, because people may be contagious before they show symptoms. As soon as a play date starts, have the kids use hand sanitizer or wash their hands (and oversee the hand washing to make sure they’re doing it correctly). Perhaps even schedule regular hand-washing breaks during the get-together and be sure everyone washes hands before snack time or lunch.

Ask the other family to keep you informed if their child develops any respiratory symptoms later that week, too, so you can know to be on the lookout for symptoms in your kids.

Where a play date takes place is important, too. Homes work well, because hosting parents can clean and disinfect play areas before and after, Dr. Popescu said. Consider wiping down the toys or items that kids gravitate toward — video game controllers, swords, favorite trucks or dolls, as well as doorknobs and light switches. If possible, get kids to play outside in the yard, where germs are less likely to collect on surfaces and be transmitted to others.

Dr. Perencevich recommended organizing play dates around an isolated outdoor activity. Invite another child to come along on a family hike. Or have the kids run around in a big, uncrowded park, which will be less germy than a popular local playground.

Spending time outside could also calm your and your kids’ nerves, which, if you have all been cooped up together for days, could be helpful. The experts I consulted advised against visiting indoor playgrounds and museums right now because they could harbor so many germs.

What about birthday parties? Again, it depends on the location and the size. If it’s a birthday party with a few kids in an uncrowded outdoor space, that will be pretty low risk. But “a birthday party at a home with lots of people over, that’s not going to be a great idea,” Dr. Popescu said.

Same goes for parties held at indoor playgrounds and trampoline parks — those are best avoided. If you’re throwing your kid a small birthday party and you don’t want to cancel, at least send out a note or text beforehand asking parents to keep kids home if they have any flulike symptoms or a bad cough.

Don’t be afraid to use screens to connect with friends and family, too. Use FaceTime or Skype regularly with grandparents (who may feel particularly isolated) and friends. Younger kids could even engage in parallel activities together, like coloring or playing with Legos simultaneously while they chat. Older kids can play games like Minecraft or Prodigy (a math game) that link with friends via an app or website.

But again — unless you’re in a high-risk situation, in-person interaction shouldn’t be completely off the table, because physical isolation can pose risks, too.

“Feeling like you’re more isolated than you’d like to be has all sorts of deleterious effects on sleep, on mood and on inflammation, and on physical health,” said Jamil Zaki, Ph.D., the director of Stanford University’s Social Neuroscience Lab and a father of a 3-year-old.

Stress plus loneliness can be a particularly bad mix, he noted — and kids may well pick up on the stress their parents are experiencing right now and feel unsettled. We all want our families to stay physically healthy, but we need to stay mentally healthy as well, and we shouldn’t ignore the importance of friendship during this especially challenging time.


Melinda Wenner Moyer is a mom of two and a science journalist who writes for Slate, Mother Jones, Scientific American and O, The Oprah Magazine, among other publications.

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