Many of us have been in quarantine for about two months. The longing to come out and enjoy the summer is real. But what is safe? We asked a panel of communicable diseases and public health experts to rate the risk of summer activities, from garden collections, to a day at the pool, to sharing a vacation home with another household.
One big caveat: Your personal risk depends on your age and health, the presence of the virus in your area and the precautions you take during any of these activities. Many areas also continue to limit the activities described here, so check your local laws.
And there is no such thing as a zero-risk excursion right now. As states begin to reopen businesses and public areas, decisions about what is safe will be up to individuals. It can help to think through the risks that the experts do.
“We can think of transmission risk with a simple phrase: time, space, people, place,”
Here’s his rule of thumb: The more time you spend and the closer Place you are for all infected people, the higher your risk. Interact with more people increases your risk and indoors places are more risky than outdoors.
Dr. Emily Landon, hospital epidemiologist and specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Chicago Medicine, has her own brief: “Always choose outdoors indoors, always choose masking or not masking, and always choose more space for fewer people over a smaller space.”
Our experts shared their thoughts via telephone and email interviews.
Jump to an activity: Bakgård Collection; Restaurant; Worship service; Beach or pool; Party outside; Public toilet; A friend who uses your bathroom; Holidays with another family; Hairstyle; Shopping center; Hotel; Camping; Nightclub; outdoor Sports
1. A BYOB garden that collects with another household: Low to medium risk
Meeting in a spacious outdoor area with only a small group is not too risky. But our experts say that security here depends on who you invite and what their behavior has been. “If you have a collection with another household it [has] followed social distancing, this would be a low-risk activity, “says Dr. Judith Guzman-Cottrill, a pediatric expert on infectious diseases at Oregon Health & Science University.
What changes the risk? To reduce the risk, avoid sharing food, drinks or utensils – make it a BYO all-party. Dr. Andrew Janowski, an expert on childhood infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis, notes that the food itself is not the risk, but it may be to move shared dishes or utensils.
Watch out for drinking, says Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician and public health researcher at Harvard Medical School, because it can make people careless about social distance. It also increases the odds that people want to use your bathroom. “When you move into the house with others, the risk profile goes up,” he says.
Some experts suggest that you wear a face covering, but Landon points out that you can’t realistically remain masked when eating and drinking. She suggests that an alternative to a meal is a lawn tournament in the garden: This way, “the kids can play together, but still wear their masks.” It can be fun for the adults.
2: Eating indoors in a restaurant: Medium to high risk
Landon indoors “are still among the more risky things you can do,” warns Landon. The problem is, says Miller, “people tend to linger in restaurants. So even though the distance is okay, the length of exposure is longer.” In addition, he says, talking “seems to lead to some release of the virus.”
Karan notes that an outbreak in Guangzhou, China took place in a restaurant with no windows and poor ventilation, and the air conditioning seems to have blown drops between the tables.
What changes the risk? Janowski says the level of risk depends on how well the restaurant has adapted to the pandemic. Dining should reduce and allow for seating, require servers to wear masks and offer easy access to hand-washing stations.
They should also provide one-time spice options so you don’t have to touch shared ones, Janowski says. And they should close all self-service areas such as soda fountains or buffet tables.
If you go to a restaurant, look for outdoor seating. Landon says she would only join members of her household, because “I don’t want to take off the mask near a bunch of other people.”
3. Participating in a worship service indoors: High risk
Religious service involves people from different households who meet indoors for a long time. “All the ingredients exist for the potential for many people to become infected in a short period of time,” says Kimberly Powers, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She points to outbreaks linked to churches: In a developed 35 out of 92 people who attended a church service in a rural Arkansas church, COVID-19.
Singing – whether on the taps or in the choir – is a high risk, several experts noted, citing a study of a driving practice in the state of Washington where over half of the participants became infected.
What changes the risk: If people are appropriately socially distanced, wearing masks and avoiding singing can reduce the risk, says Karan. Also avoid shared worship services such as hymns, Janowski adds.
The risk is reduced if places for worship are adapted, says Guzman-Cottrill. “My congregation started having personal services last week,” she says. The church had advance registration to limit attendance to 25 people. Participants were required to be healthy, wear face covers and sit at least six feet apart.
4. Spend the day at a popular beach or pool: Low risk
As long as you can keep yourself socially distanced, it can be a fairly safe activity, our experts say.
The water itself is not a risk. “The large amount of water will dilute the virus, making the water a very unlikely source of infection,” says Janowski.
What changes the risk? The most important question is how close are you to others? “Can you make sure you can stay six feet [or more] from someone outside your designated family? “asks Rebecca Katz, Head of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Watch out for the crowds at entry points and bathrooms. Maintain social distance both on land and in the water.
Landon says her biggest concern about pools and beaches is children. At the pools “they become friends with everyone”, she says. “If you want to be able to see Grandma for Sunday lunch, because that’s what’s really important to your family, you don’t want your kids running around with other people’s kids.”
She says a beach is better than a pool when it comes to space. Go early in the morning or late afternoon when crowds are lower and look for beaches that mark places for people to set up their areas.
Family-oriented celebrations are usually a summer tradition, but they have a lot of risk right now. Many weddings have been postponed and for good reason.
“Outdoors reduce the risk, but when people celebrate and drink, they don’t seem to get social distances as easily,” says Abraar Karan, the Harvard physician. “These types of events are huge crowds where people have extended face-to-face conversations.”
The larger the guest list, the greater the potential for one of them to be infected, says Kimberly Powers, UNC’s epidemiologist.
What changes the risk? The danger varies greatly depending on the size of the meeting and how close people gather.
If you are considering hosting a party, make it a small one, with mostly local guests. “Bringing people from other communities” is a high risk, says Landon at the University of Chicago. “If people have to travel by car, by air from other places, you really ask for it.”
And think twice about inviting your relatives, especially older family members or those with underlying relationships. People can feel pressured to participate, even if it is dangerous to their health – and even more so if you emphasize that you will try to do it safely, Landon says. One of the largest clusters of deaths from the Chicago virus occurred after a funeral where one of the participants spread it to many of his family members.
Toilets have been designed to prevent the transmission of diseases, Landon says: “There are all sorts of things you can catch from other people’s bows, and you almost never do that because they are designed with all hard surfaces that can be cleaned.”
The risk depends on the number of local COVID-19 cases and how clean the bathroom is, says Janowski at Washington University, noting that a bathroom involves multiple surfaces with high touch.
There is not yet enough information to know if there is a risk that the toilet will flush aerosolizing the virus. Landon says that other viruses, such as norovirus, can be aerosolized by flushing, but norovirus is not often spread as long as the bathrooms are cleaned. The CDC says it is “unclear if the virus found in feces can cause COVID-19.”
What changes the risk: Miller says the biggest risk comes from toilets that are small, busy and poorly ventilated – such as “these toilets in a gas station off the highway where the toilet is outside.”
Choose a bathroom that looks clean and is well stocked with accessories such as paper towels, soap and toilet paper. Avoid gathering in a line to use the toilet or stay there for a long time, if you are within six feet of others. Wash your hands after walking and disinfect them if you need to touch surfaces afterwards.
Landon doesn’t think it’s a big risk: “What happens in the bathroom will be sucked out of the bathroom ventilation and you can clean all hard surfaces really easily.”
Miller agrees: “You can run the fan, leave the door open afterwards (so that air flows) and clean the bathroom later. And if you use the bathroom after that, you just wash your hands.”
What changes the risk? It is possible that your friend is infected but asymptomatic, says Janowski. “It would be reasonable to clean the bathroom after a friend used it, including cleaning the door, the toilet and the high touch surfaces of the sink.”
Experts said that if both families have quarantined and limited their exposure to others, this is pretty safe. “If a family is very active or parents have higher exposure jobs, the risk increases,” Miller says.
Landon thinks this arrangement can be a good idea, especially if the house is “in the woods where you won’t have much contact with other people,” she says.
What changes the risk? Landon suggests you talk to the other family in advance to make sure you share the same expectations of the precautions everyone will take the two weeks before arrival and while you are there. Make sure no one has any signs of illness – if they do, they must stay home. Miller recommends cleaning the large areas of the house on arrival. “And the more people can reduce the exposure in the days leading up to the trip, the better,” he adds.
The consensus is that staying in a hotel is relatively low risk, especially when you are in your room. It is best to limit your time in common areas such as the lobby, gym, restaurant and elevator, where the risk of exposure is higher.
What changes the risk? Bring disinfection cloths to wipe the TV’s remote control and other common surfaces. You may also want to remove the bedspread since it may not be cleaned after every guest, Miller suggests. Ask about the hotel’s cleaning policy, as many have new COVID-19 protocols. “Watch out for the elevators! Use the knob of your little one or ring finger to push the buttons,” says Miller.
Other suggestions: Order room service rather than eating at the restaurant, avoiding the exercise room and having a face covering in public areas.
A hairstyle means “close contact and breathing, which is extended for several minutes,” notes Karan. “This is the transfer mode that we know is happening. And fabric masks are really not perfect for this.”
Janowski says this is one of the highest-risk scenarios on this list, because there’s no way to keep six feet from someone cutting their hair. “All it takes is [having] an asymptomatic but infected worker and suddenly many customers are at high risk of infection, he says.
What changes the risk? Landon believes that the risk is not very high if both you and your hairdresser wear masks and COVID-19 is not very widespread in your area. Look for a salon or barbershop that has (and enforces) policies to protect its employees, such as wearing protective gear and sanitizing hands, she says: “By protecting their employees, they also protect you.”
And make sure your barber or stylist is working, says Karan: “Stopping to chat at close range like this is something we all love to do with our barbers normally. It’s not time for that.”
11. Shopping in a mall: The risk varies
How risky this is depends on what kind of mall it is, how crowded it is and how much time you spend there, our panel agreed. “Crowds of high density lead to a significant increase in risk,” says Miller. “The most important mitigating factor is that people don’t mingle in a single place for a long time.”
What changes the risk? Outdoor malls are preferred over indoors. And empty malls are better than cramped ones. Avoid the food court and go with purpose, not leisure, says Landon: “As much as you might like retail therapy, you should browse online before you go. Know what to pick up or try. Use your mask. Go in, look at it. Take your decision and go out. “
Pay attention while you are there to avoid close contact. “Keep your space,” Miller says. “Try to go on holiday hours.” Bring hand sanitizer, says Guzman-Cottrill, and use it frequently, especially if you touch any shared surfaces like railings or elevator buttons.
There is a consensus among the experts that going to a club is a very high risk activity. Crowds, extremely close contact, singing, sweating and inhibiting-releasing alcohol are a potent cocktail of risk factors. When drinking, people become less compliant, Miller says, and they can breathe heavier from the dance – “which means more viruses are thrown,” he says. If there is an infected person in the mix, the virus can spread easily.
“This is a very high risk of an outbreak, which we saw in South Korea recently,” says Abraar Karan, citing an outbreak tied to several nightclubs and bars. “Don’t go to bars or clubs right now.”
What changes the risk? Nothing makes this a good idea right now. If you want to dance, have a dance party at home with the people in your intimate circle. If it is a small outdoor gathering, dancing under the stars – six meters apart – would also be much less risky.
“When it comes to summer activities, this is least risky from a virus perspective,” said Rebecca Katz of Georgetown. You are outdoors and isolated. Miller agrees. But he says that if you join a group, be sure you can trust your colleagues. Have they been social distance and followed the guidelines? If not, they may be asymptomatic spreaders of the virus.
What changes the risk? Of course, risks can creep in, depending on the information. “Do you camp on an isolated outdoor area with your family?” Katz asks – this is the lower risk scenario. It’s more dangerous if you’re in a crowded campsite with a shared toilet and shared picnic areas, ”she says. “Sleeping in tents with others [not in your household] can really be an installation for transmission, adds Karan.
Summary: The activity itself is low-risk, but the people you will have close contact with during the trip may increase the danger.
If you don’t play group sports, exercising outdoors is a great way to burn off steam while staying socially distant. Our experts agree that sports like golf and tennis are safer than contact sports such as basketball and football. “I would personally avoid contact sports until we have a better sense of transfer risk here,” says Karan.
And running? “If you’re not on a crowded road where people brush past each other, I think it’s a good form of exercise right now,” Powers says.
What changes the risk? The more people who participate in the activity, the higher the risk. It is possible to spread the virus when you are near others – even if you are asymptomatic – so it is best to wear a mask if you cannot keep yourself socially distanced.
The risk depends on the sport. A game like basketball is difficult, Landon says. “You touch the ball and you will breathe in each other’s faces,” so she suggests you only play with people in your household. Tennis involves a much lower risk: “You are far apart on both sides. It’s definitely social distance,” she says.