Riskiest to least risky activities during the coronavirus pandemic, according to an infectious-disease expert

Coronavirus transmission is not black and white – some activities are riskier than others, while some should cause little worry.

As states start to reopen parts of their economies and people tire of an all-out quarantine, the risk level of various activities should be considered to make decisions about what’s safe and what should be avoided.

Julia Marcus, a Harvard Medical School professor, recently argued in The Atlantic that we should remember that risk is not binary and that an abstinence-only approach won’t help. “Likewise, asking Americans to abstain from nearly all in-person social contact will not hold the coronavirus at bay – at least not forever,” she wrote.

So we spoke with Dr. Susan Hassig, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine in New Orleans, about the risks of going out to eat, gathering with friends, and opening mail.

While different activities are, by nature, riskier than others, you should wear a mask when possible and try to keep a distance of 6 feet from others. Things like social distancing and wearing a mask (or the lack thereof) can alter risk level significantly.

Here’s what you should consider about various activities as restrictions start to lift across the country.


High risk: Gatherings of family or friends
Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

Getting together with family or friends who don’t live in your household comes with a high risk of infection, Hassig said.

“If you haven’t been living with them, then there’s a potential risk,” she said.

Family and friends are unlikely to wear masks or social distance at these gatherings, and asymptomatic people could spread the virus there.

If you do decide to get together with family or friends, you should consider the age and underlying conditions of the people there and those you live with.

You should also consider who your friends could have come into contact with. Are they mostly staying at home? Are they visiting different friends every day?

“It’s not just your friend” you’re seeing, Hassig said – “it’s everybody they’ve spent time with.”


High risk: Bars
William Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK via REUTERS

Bars “should not be allowed to open,” Hassig said.

The nature of bars – mingling, crowded bartops, and the inability to wear a mask while you’re drinking – make them a high-risk place for getting a coronavirus infection, Hassig said.

And alcohol can hinder decision-making, which could make those factors even worse.


High risk: Religious functions

Christians wearing face masks attend a service at the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, May 10, 2020. South Korea's President Moon Jae-in urged citizens not to lower their guard down, but said there's no reason to be panicked amid worries about a new surge in the coronavirus outbreak in the country.(AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)
Associated Press

Rituals like shaking hands and taking communion in the Catholic Church, as well as dense crowds and the prevalence of older people, make religious services a high-risk place for coronavirus infections.

The risk could be lowered by social distancing, wearing masks, and abstaining from rituals that involve touching, eating, or drinking.


High risk: Movie theaters and sporting events
Kevork Djansezian/Reuters

Movie theaters or large events like sporting games have a high risk especially because of the crowding at entries and exits.

Even if attendees can enter and exit while social distancing – which would likely be complicated and take longer – getting infected while sitting in a contained area is still a risk.


Medium to high risk: Gyms
Maranie Staab/Reuters

Gym goers should wear a mask when possible, Hassig said.

Equipment should be sanitized before and after each use, and social distancing should be enforced rigorously.


Medium risk: Restaurants (indoors)
MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

Indoor dining at restaurants is risky because of airflow and people being in an enclosed space for hours at a time.

To help mitigate the risks of eating in a restaurant, people should wear masks until their food is delivered.

Disposable materials, especially for things like menus, can also help.


Medium risk: Hair and nail salons
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Hair and nail salons, which have opened in several states, have a medium risk of infection, Hassig said.

Wearing masks is critical, as it helps block particles from spreading as easily when you’re speaking or coughing. It also discourages employees and customers from touching their faces. Salon employees should ensure to wash their hands frequently, Hassig said.


Medium risk: Dates or gatherings with a couple of friends
David Mercado/Reuters

When it comes to dates or gatherings with a very small group, the same questions apply as with larger group gatherings.

Geography also matters: In an area with a lot of cases, like New York, the risk that your date could be contagious is higher than in a suburb with only a handful of cases.


Low to medium risk: Beaches
Empty beach Hawaii
Caleb Jones/AP Photo

Social distancing on beaches can help lower the risk of catching the coronavirus while you’re enjoying a day in the sun.

But it can also be hard to enforce because of the size of many beaches – they usually have many points of entry, so it would be difficult to limit capacity.


Low risk: Outdoor dining

Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Dining outdoors at a restaurant is a relatively low-risk activity as long as tables are kept at least 6 feet apart. Being outside allows air to flow more freely.

You should still wear a mask as often as you can and be cautious of high-touch items like menus and condiments.


Low risk: Outdoor activities
Galyna Andrushko/Shutterstock

When you’re on a hike or a walk in the park, you shouldn’t worry too much about quickly walking past another person on a path or trail.

While you should try to maintain a distance of 6 feet from others at all times, encounters of more than 15 minutes are riskier than walking past someone.

Outdoor activities are low risk if you stay with people from your household. If you meet up with other friends or family, that still counts as a gathering, and proper precautions should be taken.


Low risk: Shopping
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Shopping in a grocery store or a clothing store can be low risk if you keep a distance from others and wear a mask.

Fitting rooms should be closed, or if people are allowed to try on clothes, anything that isn’t purchased should be quarantined for a couple of days, Hassig said.

The place in stores with the most risk is the checkout, where interactions with cashiers or other customers could help spread the virus.


Low risk: Touching mail or groceries
A United States Postal worker makes a delivery with gloves and a mask in Philadelphia, Thursday, April 2, 2020. The U.S. Postal Service is keeping post offices open but ensuring customers stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) apart. The agency said it is following guidance from public health experts, although there is no indication that the new coronavirus COVID-19 is being spread through the mail. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Associated Press

There’s a low risk of catching the coronavirus from touching your mail or other items like groceries.

Hassig said she doesn’t wipe down her groceries – but if you’re worried about it, you can keep nonperishable items in the grocery bag for a few days before using them.

You should still be cautious about touching things like doorknobs and elevator buttons.



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