As the country begins to reopen, experts warn against visiting spots where coronavirus has been most likely to spread
Parts of the country are beginning to reopen—and people are eagerly venturing out after months of following shelter-in-place mandates. But that does not mean it’s suddenly safe to socialize the way we used to. With cases of COVID-19 skyrocketing across the country, many new outbreaks have been linked to spots where people are now congregating, including bars, beaches, and churches.
To protect the health of you and your loved ones, it’s important to weigh the risk level of the places you plan to visit during the pandemic. In general, coronavirus is most likely to spread in “indoor environments with limited fresh air flow, where large numbers of people can gather for longer than ten minutes of interactions, and where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing,” according to Boris Lushniak, MD, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health. When planning your future public outings, experts recommend avoiding these everyday places where infection rates are the highest.
1. Bars and restaurants
The No.1 hotspot for coronavirus infections right now is the bar scene, according to Dr. Lushniak. “Unfortunately, as bars have reopened, we have seen a large number of young people gathering but not necessarily being wary that COVID-19 is still a problem,” he says. The data backs him up: More than 150 coronavirus cases were traced back to a single bar in East Lansing, Michigan. In Louisiana, at least 100 people tested positive after visiting bars in a Baton Rouge nightlife district, and Minnesota health officials say a whopping 328 recent cases were linked to bars in the US, the New York Times reported.
Even bars that limit capacity and space tables six feet apart are high-risk environments, Dr. Lushniak says. People gather as they wait in line to get in, most not wearing masks or social distancing. Inside, people spend hours in a small, poorly ventilated space while dancing, standing close together, and shouting over the music. Loud conversations at bars can release up to ten times as many respiratory droplets as a cough, research has found.
At any indoor spot, Dr. Lushniak suggests taking stock of what public health recommendations are being followed. Ask yourself, “Are people wearing masks? Is the 6-foot rule being applied? Is it crowded with people?” he says. Best to turn down any gathering that doesn’t abide by expert-approved safeguards.
If you’re looking to beat the heat this summer, you might want to skip the beach. Coronavirus infection rates at beaches are surging as the weather warms up and beachgoers hit the waves. Three clusters of COVID-19 cases in Kentucky and one cluster in Ohio—spanning dozens of people—were connected to visitors returning from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, according to the New York Times. More than 20 student-athletes in South Carolina also tested positive after a recent trip to the beach.
It’s true that beaches allow more airflow than indoor environments, and there is little evidence that the virus can spread to people through water. But experts believe that viral particles can still travel from an infected person to others nearby, especially in places where people linger for hours at a time, like beaches and pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Although experts say the virus is more likely to spread inside, you should still take precautions when visiting outdoor spaces like beaches. The CDC recommends wearing a mask and avoiding crowded areas where you can’t stay six feet apart from other beachgoers.
3. Places of worship
Worship services have gained a reputation as super-spreader events for COVID-19. When a woman in South Korea attended a church service while sick, she caused a chain reaction of infections that reached up to 5,080 cases—more than half of the US total. A recent CDC report also found that the pastor of a rural Arkansas church and his wife infected 35 members of their congregation back in March.
What gives? Churches and other places of worship incorporate many of the practices that experts believe increase the likelihood of transmission. In addition to spending long periods of time indoors, people are congregating close together, sharing food, and speaking and singing loudly.
Most places of worship are holding remote services, but worshipers attending in person should not be afraid to ask about the property’s cleaning and disinfection protocols, according to Dr. Lushniak. “All this is about your personal and your family’s health,” he says.
Research shows that gyms and other fitness centers are high-risk environments for transmission. In South Korea, a workshop for Zumba fitness instructors led to a coronavirus cluster with an infection rate of about 26 percent, according to a new CDC report. Experts point to insufficient ventilation, large class sizes, and intensity of the workouts for high infection rates at gyms.
If you decide to visit the gym, prepare to mask up. Many states now require people to wear masks in indoor spaces like fitness centers, and some instruct people to wear masks while they exercise outdoors, too. “These practices show we care about our own health but also the health of those around us,” Dr. Lushniak says. “This is the right thing to do and is part of the weaponry to battle the pandemic.”
5. Family gatherings
Without the right precautions, one seemingly harmless gathering with friends and family could end in tragedy. One man experiencing mild symptoms of COVID-19 went to a funeral in February, as well as a potluck-style meal with the family of the deceased the night before. Three days later, the same man attended a birthday party for a family member. He ended up infecting 11 people in all, and three people died, the CDC reported. The report suggested that close contact, including hugging and sharing food, was to blame for transmission.
If you are feeling sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past 14 days, it’s best to sit out on social gatherings, according to the CDC. The CDC also recommends hosting any gathering outdoors or in a well-ventilated space. Spacing tables and chairs six feet apart, planning social distancing-friendly activities, wearing face masks, and frequent handwashing can also help to protect guests from infection.
6. Nursing homes
An estimated 11 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the United States are linked to long-term care facilities like nursing homes—and more than 43 percent of the country’s coronavirus deaths have been nursing home residents, according to a New York Times database. The CDC warns that nursing home populations have a higher risk of falling ill due to their advanced age, underlying health conditions, and the close proximity of living quarters.
To protect residents and staff, nursing home facilities across the country have closed to visitors and are following enhanced hygiene protocols. And many of these new practices may be here to stay, even for the general public. “Physical distancing, mask wear, and frequent handwashing need to become part of our culture for the near future,” Dr. Lushniak says.
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