Experts weigh in on the risk of 12 activities, from heading to the beach to getting your hair cut.

By Ashley Mateo
Jul 13, 2020 @ 2:05 pm
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At first, social distancing seemed like something we all could handle for a month or so. After all, we had FaceTime and Zoom to get us through. Five months later...COVID-19 case numbers are spiking in the vast majority of states. The U.S. has reported about 51,383 new cases on average over the past seven days, up 24.5 percent compared with a week ago, according to CNBC.

And yet...it’s summer. People are sick of being stuck indoors for months of social isolation. As states loosen restrictions on gathering sizes, business openings, and travel limitations, it’s inevitable that people are going to take advantage of that newfound freedom.

“It’s about taking calculated risks,” says Aimee Ferraro, a senior core faculty member in Walden University’s Master of Public Health program, who conducts research on infectious and vector-borne diseases internationally. “We can do some things while making certain decisions around risk reduction: wear a mask, clean your hands, and socially distance as much as possible.” Indoor places, crowds, and poor airflow would be the top three risks to avoid, she adds.

“Another important concept is to have an exposure 'budget',” says Dr. Karen Ravin, Chief, Infectious Diseases at Nemours Children’s Health in Delaware. “Don’t immediately return to all your usual activities and don’t do them all in one day or week. Space them out as much as possible.”

Here’s what experts had to say about the risks of participating in these 12 activities this summer.

Going to a bar.

There’s a reason bars remain shuttered across the country: They hit the risk trifecta, says Ferraro. Beyond that, “the thing that makes bars a bigger risk is that people talk a lot, and loudly,” says Ferraro. “When you speak, you get these aerosolized droplets that carry the virus and float in the air for awhile.” And, obviously, people aren’t able to keep their masks on while drinking, so that ups exposure even further. Dr. Fauci laid down the law back on June 30: "Bars: really not good, really not good. Congregation at a bar, inside, is bad news. We really have got to stop that," he said at a Senate hearing.

Deborah Birx, M.D., the White House’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator agrees bars need to remain closed. "Going to a bar in metros and counties with test positive rates more than 5% is very risky," she tells InStyle.

Eating out at a restaurant.

If you have the choice, always opt for outdoor seating. "Outdoor dining is safer than decreased-occupancy indoor dining," Dr. Birx says.

“If restaurants are taking proper precautions, spacing out tables, having specific reservation/seating times, enforcing mask wearing for all patrons when not at their tables and servers all the time, making sure staff does appropriate hand hygiene, and the restaurant is not too crowded, then I think the risk is low to medium,” says Ravin.

Still, if you can’t stand the idea of cooking, “getting takeout or ordering to your home is obviously safer, because you don’t have to have contact with anyone,” says Ferraro.

Working out at the gym.

As gyms reopen, owners are taking necessary safety precautions to comply with state or city regulations — although there are no federal guidelines yet. Despite upping their sanitization standards or going so far as to erect plastic shields between equipment, gyms are definitely considered one of the riskier activities, says Ravin. Whether you’re on a cardio machine or lifting weights, “the heavier someone is breathing, the more respiratory droplets they’re expelling into the air,” she explains. Plus, research has shown that COVID-19 can survive for longer periods on smooth, hard surfaces, like treadmill and elliptical arms or free weights.

Going for a check-up at your doctor or dentist's office.

If you’ve been using COVID fears to avoid your annual physical or cleaning, you’re out of luck. “Dentist offices and doctor’s offices are taking so many precautions right now that the risk is almost negligible,” says Ravin. “There’s an emphasis on staff screening, mask-wearing by all, great attention to hand hygiene, and environmental cleaning.” So, yes, you’re even pretty safe when a dentist is all up in your face.

Protesting

Despite heightened anxieties around the Black Lives Matter protests, they actually did not lead to an increase in COVID-19 cases, according to a new study from University of Colorado Denver researchers. Protesting for what you believe in is a personal choice, but “as an epidemiologist, I can’t recommend that people go to a protest,” says Ferraro. “Still, at a march or outdoor gathering, there’s likely natural airflow that’s dispersing the respiratory droplets better than if you were in a convention center for a rally.”

Getting a haircut.

If a hair salon is taking proper precautions — spacing out appointments, having socially-distanced chairs, and enforcing mask-wearing — Dr. Birx considers getting a hair cut to be "low risk". A Missouri health department found that after two infected hair stylists saw 140 clients, there were no new infections linked to the salon — a testament to just how important the above safety precautions are key to preventing transmission. Still, there's an even safer way to go: “If you need a haircut, my recommendation is to have the stylist come to your house and wear a mask,” says Ferraro.

Getting your nails done.

Dr. Birx would classify getting a manicure — again with masks and social distancing from other clients – to be a low-risk activity. In addition to the precautions mentioned above, some salons are using plexiglass shields between the nail technician and the client, or having nail technicians wear full-face shields. “Any kind of barrier definitely helps limit exposure,” says Ravin. But a nail salon is still an enclosed space, and you have to stay for a significant amount of time. “Some studies have shown that as little as 15 minutes of contact with an infected person within a confined space with poor airflow is enough for transmission to occur,” says Ferraro.

Getting a facial, massage, or elective cosmetic procedure

If you're looking to get a facial or elective cosmetic procedure, like Botox, Dr. Birx says these are, again, low-risk activities if mask-wearing and social-distancing in waiting rooms are being enforced. While aestheticians and masseuses are usually better trained in safety measures than a hairstylist or a nail technician, do your own due diligence before you make an appointment. “Be a smart consumer and ask the place what measures they’re taking to keep people safe,” says Ravin. It’s not just about cleaning surfaces and wearing masks and gloves; “95% or more of infections are happening through respiratory droplets, and that can happen in any shared space like a waiting room,” says Ferraro.

Shopping

If you want to give your UPS guy a break and leave the four walls you’ve been staring at, going to a mall or walking around downtown is a good lower-risk activity. “The time of contact with any one person is very brief and the area is large, in the case of a mall, or outdoors, for walking downtown,” says Ravin. Crowds and people not masking up would both increase the risk, though, so make sure you do your part and head home if people are ignoring safety measures.

Going to the beach

It’s outdoors, there’s plenty of space on the sand, what risk could there be? Actually, “oceans could be contaminated with COVID-19 through untreated sewage,” says Ferraro. “The greater volume of water would likely dissipate the concentration of COVID-19, but the possibility of transmission is still there.” Before you set up your chairs and towels, make sure you have plenty of space to spread out (at least six feet), and if you’re going to get up and walk around — even just down to the water — wear a mask, says Ravin.

Swimming at a public pool

“In general, experts agree that swimming in pools is safe because chlorine and bromine effectively destroy COVID-19,” says Ferraro. But being close to other people — yes, even while swimming, still increases the risk of infection. “Swimmers should stay at least six feet away from others both in and out of the water,” she says. “Wear masks and frequently wash hands to further reduce risk in areas such as locker rooms, bathroom facilities, and cafes.” Dr. Birx adds that crowded p strict occupancy rules should still be enforced to keep this a low-risk summer activity.

Going to a backyard BBQ

With the loosening of social distancing restrictions, people are starting to feel comfortable congregating in groups. “This is definitely not as risky as going to a bar or restaurant,” says Ferraro. But there have been outbreaks at family or neighborhood gatherings, she warns. “The longer you spend with someone, the more virus you might pick up from them,” she explains. Your immune system may be able to handle 100 droplets picked up in a few minutes, but after an hour and tens of thousands or millions of droplets, your immune system is overwhelmed, and that’s when you get sick.”