With cases of COVID-19 surging across the country and the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths breaking daily records, it has never been more crucial to protect yourself and others. Some states and cities have tightened restrictions, closing up bars, banning indoor dining, limiting occupancy at many establishments, and even the number of people allowed at private gatherings. Others remain open and operating as usual. But no matter where you live and what remains open, keep in mind the old saying: just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
As excited as you may be to visit your favorite local establishments or get together with friends and family over the holidays, it's important not to become lax about the COVID-19 pandemic. Check out these 35 places you're most likely to catch COVID — ranked from least to most risky — so you can better understand the risk associated with your activities. Read on, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.
Taking a Walk
A nice walk outside is a great way to clear your head during this stressful pandemic. But it's still important to follow social distancing and mask guidelines in your area to prevent the spread.
A study published in Physics of Fluids analyzed respiratory droplets from sneezes and coughs. The study found that a human cough can expel droplets from 10 to 250 meters per second. If you're planning to take a relaxing walk, try to choose a path that's not very crowded and always practice social distancing.
When you head out to the great outdoors for a hike, you may assume you're safe from COVID-19. But if you're hiking on a crowded trail, you're still at risk. Wearing a face mask and staying six feet away from other hikers reduces your risk. "When you venture outdoors, try to only spend time with people within your household," warns the American Hiking Society. If you follow proper protocol, your risk remains low but it's important to follow your local government's regulations.
Going to a State Park or Other Outdoor Areas
With wide open spaces and outdoor recreation areas, a state park may seem to be one of the safest places to visit during a pandemic. However, there are spots to watch out for as you explore your local state park. Restrooms, visitor centers, or popular attractions may be crowded, making it hard to socially distance.
"Check with the park or recreation area in advance to prepare safely, use social distancing and avoid crowded parks, wear a mask, and clean hands often," the CDC suggests. Consider visiting the state park at off-times and heading to attractions that aren't as popular.
As long as you don't choose a crowded gas station that prevents social distancing, you should be relatively safe pumping gas. However, it's important to consider all the hands that have touched the pump and buttons before you. "Use disinfecting wipes on handles and buttons before you touch them," the CDC recommends. When you're done pumping, use hand sanitizer and don't touch your face until you can thoroughly wash your hands to lower your risk.
Shopping at a Farmer's Market
If your local farmer's markets are open for business, you may assume it's safe since these events are usually hosted outdoors. However, your risk for spreading COVID-19 at a farmer's market is only low if your local government enforces the proper protocol for vendors. Consider how closely your local farmer's market adheres to social distancing and mask guidelines and ensure you feel comfortable with the risk before visiting.
Walking Through Downtown
No matter where you live, downtown areas are usually synonymous with crowded sidewalks and bustling businesses. These populated areas can make it hard to socially distance. While most areas implement face mask wearing guidelines when it's hard to socially distance, not all patrons follow these regulations.
If you plan to visit your local downtown area, wear a mask and attempt to social distance as much as possible. Try to visit the area at a time that's less crowded, such as a weekday afternoon.
Browsing at the Grocery Store
Most grocery stores have strict guidelines in place that require mask wearing and social distancing. However, if someone isn't following the rules or the store is more crowded than usual, you may find yourself at risk for contracting the virus. The more time you spend extremely close to people who may be infected and are talking, coughing, or laughing, the higher your risk for contracting the virus.
"Going to a market briefly, for five minutes or a transient encounter while you walk or run past someone, those are low risks," according to Dr. Muge Cevik, MD, MSc, MRCP(UK) from the University of St. Andrews. When visiting a grocery store, grab what you need and head out so you don't spend additional risky time in a crowd.
Waiting in Line for To-Go Food
We already know that COVID-19 is more easily spread indoors and when people don't practice social distancing. If you're waiting in line for to-go food inside a restaurant and close to several people, it can be dangerous for virus spread, according to the CDC. This is especially true if the people around you aren't wearing masks. So, when in line, make sure to socially distance.
Going to School
There are many procedures in place at educational institutions, including mask mandates and social distancing guidelines, that ensure the safety of kids in the learning environment. While some schools were hesitant to open in the fall, according to health experts and multiple studies, transmission in schools isn't likely.
Taking Your Kids to a Playground
The amount of risk you take on when visiting a local playground with your children depends on where you live, how crowded the park may be, and whether children and their caregivers are wearing masks. "Avoid crowded parks, wear a mask as feasible, and stay home if you are sick," is the advice provided by the CDC in regards to visiting playgrounds and local parks.
"There is no evidence that COVID-19 can spread to people through the water used in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds," according to the CDC. While you don't need to worry about the water at a public pool, a crowded pool may be an issue — especially since you can't exactly wear a mask while swimming. Obviously, indoor pools and water parks are even riskier. Consider a pool that's less crowded or enforces social distancing restrictions more firmly or skip swimming altogether.
Waiting in a Doctor's Office
Most doctor's offices are still encouraging virtual appointments but there may be some instances when you need to see your doctor face-to-face. Your doctor's office is likely to be implementing strict regulations, including wearing a mask and socially distancing from other patients.
For example, John Hopkins Medicine claims it has "carefully planned and taken extra precautions to help ensure that we are doing everything we can to minimize any risk to our patients and staff members." They're focused on keeping facilities clean and testing staff for COVID-19 regularly. While being in a waiting room with potentially sick people is risky, you shouldn't avoid the doctor if you need medical treatment.
Going to an Art Museum
While art, history, and science museums reopened during the summer months, many are opting to close up for the winter. Why? The virus is most easily spread in indoor areas. If you're worried about the COVID-19 risk associated with visiting an art museum, review the establishment's guidelines first to ensure you feel safe and can enjoy your time.
Visiting a Library
While some libraries may be opening their doors to the public, there are other ways to borrow books or use library services without visiting the establishment. To minimize risk, visit your local library's social media accounts or websites to browse the online services offered.
Libraries are prepared to see a "potential increase in that online traffic and the interest in some of these online support services," according to Catherine Rasberry, Ph.D. from the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health. You may be able to choose your books online and pick them up curbside, which reduces your human-to-human contact and your risk for potentially contracting the virus.
Shopping in a Retail Store
Packed retail stores are a thing of the past and more shoppers simply don't "browse" anymore for fear of increasing their risk of contracting the virus. When you shop in a retail store, it's best to grab what you need efficiently to reduce potential exposure. Luckily, shopping online is incredibly easy and convenient. Be picky about where you shop and be quick when picking up your goods to reduce your risk.
Hosting an Event Outdoors
If you plan to host a gathering with friends or family, there is always a risk. However, the safest way to do so is keeping the event outdoors. However, keep in mind, the more attendees you invite, the higher your risk for spreading the virus. Also, to ensure the health of everyone involved, make sure to socially distance and even ask your guests to wear a mask when they aren't eating or drinking. Before planning a get-together at your house, you should review your local and state COVID-19 guidelines, consider your risk for severe illness, and consider your household members' risk for severe illness, the CDC suggests.
During Air Travel
Traveling by plane was one of the first activities that became labeled as "dangerous" when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Since then, we have learned that it isn't the actual airplane where transmission risk is the highest, but at the airport. "Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces," the CDC states. If you have no choice but to travel by air, keep your hands clean and away from your mouth, wear a mask, and socially distance whenever possible.
Getting a Haircut
Getting a haircut is actually fairly safe if both you and your stylist are masked up. One highly cited CDC study surrounding two symptomatic infected stylists found that out of the 130-plus clients who were exposed, zero additional cases were reported.
Getting Your Nails Done
If you're used to regular manicures or pedicures, you may be itching to get to your nail salon. But just like getting a haircut, this service requires close interaction with other people, which can be risky.
"The biggest risk in a nail salon is going to be sitting close to other people. If they're not wearing masks, face shields, or both, you could potentially be exposed to infection for a fairly prolonged period of time," according to Andrea LaCroix, Ph.D. from University of California San Diego School of Medicine. If you're at high risk for a severe case or you're worried about contracting the virus, it's best to stick with in-home manicures for now.
Going to a Theme Park
Surprisingly, theme parks have been relatively low risk during the pandemic. This is likely due to the fact that many are operating at a much lower capacity, encourage social distancing, and require mask wearing.
The CDC warns you're at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19 if "park operations are open at full capacity with no modifications to allow for social distancing." If you're planning to head to a theme park, analyze the park's guidelines first to ensure you feel comfortable with the risk you're taking. Also, try and stay outdoors, because as Dr. Fauci reiterates time and again, "outdoors is better than indoors."
Playing a Team Sport
While team sports can be safe if everyone practices the recommended safety procedures, studies have found that risks increase before and after the game, when teammates congregate in locker rooms. Also, keep in mind that outdoors is always safer than indoors, so try and keep the game outside if possible.
Attending a Sporting Event
Sports resumed earlier this year with social distancing and limited capacity in the stands. However, keep in mind that sporting events hosted outdoors are much safer than those indoors. It's still important to wear your mask and maintain social distancing from other spectators (or parents). "Avoid using restroom facilities or concession areas at high traffic times, such as intermission, half-time, or immediately at the end of the event," the CDC recommends.
Going to the Gym
Many health experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci — warn that gyms can be risky when it comes to spreading the virus. If your gym follows guidelines to a tee and you abide by the rules, you may not be at high risk for contracting the virus during your workout. "Place handwashing stations or hand sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol in multiple locations throughout the workplace for workers and patrons," the CDC recommends. However, if your gym is crowded and proper protocol doesn't seem to be in place, consider working out at home to lower your risk.
Staying at a Hotel
Before you plan a vacation, it's important to learn more about your destination and how it's faring through the COVID-19 pandemic. If you travel to an area with a high transmission rate, you're putting yourself at higher risk for contracting the virus than if you stay in your hometown. Also keep in mind that hotels are filled with people from all over the country.
If you do plan to travel and stay in a hotel, check with the front desk about sanitizing procedures. "When I came in, I would also wipe things down, possibly with alcohol wipes — particularly high-touch surfaces that would have me touch something, then touch my mouth, like a hotel bathroom sink," says Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D. from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Going to a House of Worship
COVID-19 does not discriminate when it comes to religion. Any sort of religious gathering is equally risky when it involves a large group of people in a small indoor setting. Before attending a religious service, make sure your establishment is implementing the guidelines suggested by the CDC. Social distancing may be tough, especially in a large organization, but it's important to help stop the spread.
Religious organizations should remain "consistent with applicable federal and State laws and regulations," according to the CDC. If your church doesn't seem to be following these guidelines, you may want to skip Sunday service for a while.
An Indoor Baby or Bridal Shower
You never want to miss a family member or good friend's baby or bridal shower but this indoor event may come with a high risk of spreading coronavirus. In fact, like any other type of gathering with family or friends, the risk of infecting others is extremely high.
Eating Indoors at a Restaurant
We all love to eat inside of a restaurant. However, there is a reason why indoor dining is usually one of the first luxuries to be restricted. Why? While eating and drinking people are forced to take off their masks. And, in an indoor environment the virus can spread more easily than outdoors. Play it safe: sit outside or simply get takeout.
Eating at a Buffet
While you can't contract COVID-19 from food, eating at a buffet may be riskier than a sit-down restaurant. At a buffet, you have more chances to interact with other people and if the restaurant is crowded, it can be tough to socially distance. You're sharing utensils with other potentially infected people so if you touch your nose or mouth, you may contract the virus.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set strict guidelines for buffets and it "recommends frequent washing and sanitizing of all food contact surfaces and utensils." However, if you're worried about coronavirus, it may be best to skip a buffet-style restaurant for a while.
Going on a Trip With Friends or Family
Traveling in general is risky. But doing so with anyone who lives outside of your home is simply a bad idea at this point in the pandemic. Due to the fact that most COVID spread happens when an individual is asymptomatic, even if your travel buddies are feeling fine it doesn't mean they aren't carrying the virus. Your risk increases even more based on other factors, including where your group is traveling to and from, how you are getting there, where you are staying, and whether you are residing together. In short, save your vacation days until after the pandemic.
Dinner at a Friend's House Inside
It's easy to assume that hanging out with a small group of friends at someone's house is safe. However, the two most important elements to stop the transmission of COVID-19 are mask wearing and social distancing, according to the CDC. If you're at a friend's house with someone who's infected, you're in a dangerous spot. Chances are your friends aren't socially distancing or wearing masks while having dinner inside, which may spread the virus to all dinner party attendees—not to mention, there may be poor ventilation. Golden rule: Eat outdoors. Outside is always better than inside.
Working in an Office
While most people miss seeing their coworker in the flesh, health experts — including Dr. Anthony Fauci — don't endorse returning to business as usual unless you have to. If you share office equipment or chat with co-workers who aren't wearing masks and one of them has COVID-19, it could easily spread to you and throughout the whole office. Additionally, break rooms, cafeterias, and other common areas have been the source of many outbreaks during the pandemic — even in the hospital setting.
Going to a Wedding
A small outside wedding with social distancing and mask wearing shouldn't pose a high threat to the spread of COVID-19. However, if you're attending a large or even small event that's hosted indoors, you are putting your life and the lives of others at risk. In fact, weddings have been major superspreader events during the pandemic.
"The higher the level of community transmission in the area that the gathering is being held, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spreading during a gathering," the CDC warns. Unless the wedding is on Zoom, you should probably decline the invite.
Hugging a Friend
Hugging a friend hello or goodbye may have been commonplace but in a pandemic, this simple gesture becomes dangerous for spreading the virus. If you're dying for a hug from a friend or family member, Dr. Todd Ellerin, MD from South Shore Hospital recommends you first consider the person involved, the place you're planning to hug, and the space you'll have. Only hug a person you know isn't sick or wasn't exposed to the virus and try to initiate the contact while outside and not around other people.
Visiting Your Local Bar
Thinking of grabbing a drink at your favorite bar? Even if your local bars are open, it may not be the safest spot when it comes to spreading COVID-19. If a bar allows patrons to sit near each other, the risk is higher, especially if they've taken off their masks to enjoy a cold one. Coronavirus is more easily transmitted at a bar when "seating capacity is not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart," according to the CDC. In fact, when asked about the riskiest places during the pandemic, health experts are pretty unanimous that bars should be a no-no.
Hanging With a Sick Person
Have plans with a friend or family member who isn't feeling 100%? Cancel. COVID-19 symptoms are varied and may include a headache, fever, runny nose, nausea, or fatigue, according to the CDC. While your friend may think it's just a hangover or allergies and it's fine to hang out, you're putting yourself at risk without a negative coronavirus test. Refrain from hanging out until you know for sure it's not the virus. And to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.