For many families and fall-lovers, autumn is synonymous with apple picking. But in the time of COVID-19, is apple picking a safe idea? Since apple picking (and pumpkin picking and of course cider donut-eating) takes place outdoors, it's definitely a good choice for those looking to enjoy some seasonal fun. Still, there will be some changes to how you've experienced apple picking in the past and the best way to have fun is to be prepared.
"Apple picking out of doors with plenty of social distancing and potentially even wearing a mask sounds like a fairly low risk pursuit," S. Patrick Kachur, professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health told TODAY Food.
Outdoor fun = safer fun
"Going apple picking as an individual family experience where you’ll be responsible for and able to control your own transportation and physical distancing can be a safe outing," said Kachur. "Being out of doors greatly reduces the risk of virus being transmitted, and can make physical distancing far more easy to achieve."
Kachur advises bringing along face coverings for the times when social distancing is not viable (and many orchards and farms will require masks anyway). "Washing your hands frequently, especially before and after putting on or taking off your face covering, is advised," said Kachur.
Avoid the crowds
With many people looking for outdoor fall activities, orchards can quickly become crowded places. While some orchards will have timed entry slots, others may keep guests waiting in long lines (which also presents a problem for adhering to social distancing rules).
"The presence of large crowds makes things more complicated," said Kachur. "Organized festivals or waiting on-line for a long time to get to and from the orchard can present other transmission opportunities. Again, being out of doors, physically distant and masked can all reduce that to a very low level. But be mindful that getting to and from the apple trees, you may also come into contact with many people in crowded indoor areas, like restrooms, service areas, eating and drinking establishments, retail environments and other settings that are riskier."
Should you wear gloves?
While wearing a mask is probably a must at most orchards, Kachur says you can leave the gloves behind on your outing.
"There should be no COVID-19-specific reason to wear gloves while you pick, unless that makes you feel safer," said Kachur. "Virus shouldn’t be present on growing or fallen fruit and it wouldn’t survive there if it were."
And as for that time-old tradition of biting into a crisp, red apple while you pick? Sadly, most orchards advise against it.
"It is always advisable to wash produce in plenty of clean water before consuming it," said Kachur.
As orchards across the country welcome guests for fall fun festivals, many are taking extra precautions to minimize the risk of COVID-19. At Terhune Orchards in New Jersey, a masked crew dubbed the "Apple Corps" was enlisted to keep staff and customers safe during fall fun outings.
Once you've chosen your safest destination for apple picking, it's time to think about the fun stuff!
Katie Workman, author of "The Mom 100 Cookbook" and "Dinner Solved!" told TODAY Food that reiterating the rules about staying six feet apart, especially to small children, can help make the outing less stressful.
"Have everyone pick a tree to be 'their' tree and challenge each person to find the 20 best apples on that one tree," Workman suggested. "This keeps everyone socially distanced, gives a fun scavenger hunt quality to the apple picking, and also makes it last a bit longer."
If the orchard you're going to allows picnicking, this can be another great way to extend your outdoor time and enjoy some great food.
"Bring a few cheeses and a cutting board — nothing goes better with fresh apples than all kinds of cheese!" suggested Workman.
If you're looking for more hearty fare, try some of her portable and healthy salads like her Herbed Chicken Salad or Sesame-Honey Quinoa and Carrot Salad with Sliced Avocado .
4 classic apple recipes for fall
And, when your outing is done, remember you still get to have fun figuring out what to do with all those apples! TODAY Food has some great recipes that will bring the taste of fall straight to your kitchen.
1. Dylan Dreyer's Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal
Put those apples to work the next day with this oatmeal recipe that's bursting with fall flavor.
2. Classic Apple Pie
You can't get more classic than apple pie.
3. Dylan Dreyer's Apple Crisp
Prefer apple crisp instead? Serve this one warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for the perfect finishing touch.
4. Apple Cinnamon Chips
For a healthy snack, trying making these crispy apple chips.
"All you need are 4 apples (sliced into chip-like pieces accomplished by slicing vertically through the entire apple), 2 tsps cinnamon and 1 1/2 tsps coconut oil or butter. Preheat your oven to 230 degrees Fahrenheit," says Kristin Koskinen, RDN.
"Place the apple slices in a mixing bowl and toss with the cinnamon until well-coated. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and grease lightly with the coconut oil or butter. Spread apple chips evenly across the baking sheet making sure not to crowd them. Place in the oven and bake for 1 hour, turning at the 30 minute mark. Remove from the oven and let cool completely. Store in an airtight container for 2-3 days."