- As businesses and public facilities reopen during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are warning people to be cautious about where they choose to go.
- They say places such as bars, theaters, and churches where people congregate closely are higher risk gatherings for coronavirus spread.
- They say pools and beaches can also be high risk due to the lack of physical distancing among groups.
- They recommend people check to make sure businesses such as hair salons are following safety protocols before entering those establishments.
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For millions of Americans who’ve been locked down for months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the reopening in all 50 states might feel like a welcome relief.
But while many places may have flattened their curves, the pandemic is far from over.
Among other indicators, more than 20 states reported increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases during the first week of June.
Until a vaccine is found — which could take months or years — that means living with some degree of COVID-19 risk and taking steps to minimize that risk, both in the places you’re least likely to contract the virus that causes the disease and where you’re the most likely to get it.
“I like to think of it as the same principles that we apply to limit radiation exposure — time, distance, and shielding,” said Andrew Roszak, JD, MPA, EMT-paramedic, the executive director for the Institute for Childhood Preparedness and a former senior public health advisor for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Emergency Care Coordination Center.
“The less time we are in the same place with an infected individual, the better,” Roszak told Healthline. “A quick trip to a grocery store is better than sitting through a 2-hour movie or working 8 hours inside a business. For distance, this is where our social distancing comes in. And just as we wear a lead vest to protect us from X-rays, we also can use shielding to protect us from the coronavirus. This is why you are seeing so many businesses install protective glass or plexiglass to provide shielding from the coronavirus.”
With that in mind, here are some of the higher risk places you could go and how you might be able to limit your risk of infection from SARS-Cov-2.
Many of us miss socializing with friends over an evening drink, but experts say bars are among the worst place to be during a pandemic — in part because they’re designed to encourage close quarters.
“The highest risk environments would be indoors with poor air/HVAC systems, with an inability to maintain 6-foot spacing accompanied by loud talking or yelling without everyone wearing a mask,” Dr. Jeff Pothof, the chief quality officer at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, told Healthline. “The most common example would be a crowded bar with people having to speak loudly because of the noise and either unmasked or frequently removing the mask to eat or drink.”
Wearing a mask and maintaining physical distancing would help limit your risk here, but given the nature of a bar, that could be impractical.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned against attending gatherings of 10 or more people as a particular risk for COVID-19 transmission.
Officials say that’s because these gatherings offer more opportunities to come in contact with a person who has the virus. These gatherings also are less likely to have proper physical distancing.
Rock concerts and religious services are among this group.
If you do decide to go out, “Reduce your risk by being selective in your choice of venues,” said Carol Winner, MPH, MSE, a public health expert and founder of the physical distancing brand give space.
“Try to research things like how many people will be allowed into the theater per showing? Is my church spreading attendees out by pews?” she told Healthline.
While the likelihood is low of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 through the water of a pool or ocean, the lack of physical distancing is a concern at community pools and beaches.
“Public beaches and community pools can go from quiet to bustling before you know it,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, chief of hospital medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.
“If you find that you are unable to wear your mask (because you are eating or drinking, for example) and you are also unable to maintain your distance from others (because of overcrowding) — it’s time to go,” she told Healthline.
Transportation, whether that’s subways, buses, trains, or airplanes, is another venue where it’s hard to maintain physical distancing.
You’re also likely to have prolonged exposure to other people, making it especially high risk.
“In major urban centers, these transit systems are essential and because of this they are often overcrowded,” Tony Abate, an expert on the airborne transmission of viruses and vice president and chief technical officer at AtmosAir Solutions, an air purification company in Fairfield, Connecticut. “This raises the probability of passing coronavirus aerial droplets from passenger to passenger by sneezing, coughing, or even talking.”
Abate told Healthline that passengers should be wary of high-touch surfaces on transportation, including handrails, door pulls, and buttons.
Handwashing and avoiding touching your face are essential to minimize your risk in this circumstance.
While the outdoors is generally safer than indoors thanks to nature’s natural ventilation, big crowds such as those at a wedding or a large party still pose a serious risk.
“As more crowds gather, you will likely be in a position where you will have to ask others to take a step back and give you a safe space, as some people will not be wearing masks or social distancing properly,” Winner said.
“Many people are not yet accustomed to navigating crowds while social distancing,” she noted.
Many workplaces, such as factories and call centers with crowded desks and poor ventilation, are particularly high risk.
And unlike some of the items on this list, it might be unavoidable if you have to work there.
This has been seen in real time as meatpacking plants have become some of the biggest COVID-19 hot spots nationwide.
“Social distancing must be monitored, and the business must allow employees to have a safe way to share any concerns of improper health behavior among their colleagues,” said Winner.
In addition, she said businesses should provide training on the proper way to wear masks as well as remove gloves and any other personal protective equipment (PPE) required of the position.
Psychological services should be available if employees needs them, she noted.
“Compensation for COVID-19 workers should also be in place to support at a minimum, paid sick leave and if possible, bonus pay,” Winner said.
Hair salons have become a lightning rod for people who want businesses to reopen, but they might be one of the highest risk places you can venture.
“If you choose to go out, consider that you may be more likely to catch COVID-19 at certain places that don’t follow social distancing guidelines or have high touchpoint surfaces,” said Dr. Dora Savani, an epidemiologist at St. Elizabeth Healthcare in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky area. “These places include hair and nail salons.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t relatively safe ways to get a cut or style.
“I would advise picking places to visit based on individual environmental set up vs. type of establishment. I would wear a mask and only frequent establishments that have mask policies,” said Dr. Alexander Benson, a critical care physician at Centura Health in Colorado who leads that facility’s COVID-19 operation team. “If you have a particular place you’re wanting to return to, ask them about the HVAC and cleaning policies.”
At Sweet Olive Salon in New Orleans, the owner and staff say they are following all recommended guidelines from the Louisiana Board of Cosmetology.
This includes requiring protective masks for clients and employees as well as requiring that customers come in with their hair prewashed and shampooed.
The salon also sanitizes all tools and stations between clients and limits the number of people in the store.