scorecardHow to minimize your coronavirus risk when going to restaurants, coffee shops, and beaches, according to an expert
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How to minimize your coronavirus risk when going to restaurants, coffee shops, and beaches, according to an expert

Aylin Woodward   

How to minimize your coronavirus risk when going to restaurants, coffee shops, and beaches, according to an expert
LifeScience4 min read
People sit in a restaurant in Stockholm on May 8, 2020, amid the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.    Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic isn't going to end without a vaccine. A group of US researchers suggests future waves of infections will last through 2022, and the country is struggling to adapt to a new normal in the meantime.

We are all becoming accustomed to a constant internal monologue about minimizing the risk of coronavirus infection: "Is it safe to go hiking?" "Should I dash into the pet store?" "How close is too close to stand in line at the coffee shop?"

Scientists agree that the virus primarily spreads between people via droplets that fly 6 feet through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks.

What the virus likes most is people being in close face-to-face contact "indoors, for a prolonged period of time," William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told Business Insider.

But there are ways of lowering your risk of infection even in those indoor places. "The father away you are, and the shorter duration of contact between you and other people means you get less efficient virus transmission," he said.

His tips includes avoiding areas — both indoors and outside — where people congregate, and planning ahead to minimize how much time you spend in indoor public areas. Here's how you can gauge your risk in various everyday situations.

Avoid large gatherings of any kind

The more time you spend near someone who has COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the higher the chance their infectious droplets make it to your face. That's why a brief encounter between two joggers on a park trail isn't much cause for concern.

"I would not worry about walking by someone," Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, told Slate. "Even in a healthcare setting, contact is defined by being near someone for a certain amount of time. I would not worry about these fleeting encounters."

But large social gathering should be avoided.

cu boulder coronavirus party
Students at the University of Colorado Boulder during a graduation party amid the pandemic, May 7, 2020.      MediaNews Group/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images

"Any gathering, from the point of view of the virus, is ideal. People get together, exchange stories, and thank you very much the virus is going to go from me to you," Schaffner said.

Authors of a study published in mid-May found talking loudly produces enough droplets to transmit the coronavirus to others, and that those droplets linger in the air for at least eight minutes.

"There is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments," the researchers wrote.

Evidence increasingly shows that the risk of infection is higher in poorly ventilated, crowded areas than it is outdoors, where it's easier to social distance. But even if such gatherings take place outside, that doesn't mean transmission risk is zero.

According to Schaffner, behavior matters most when it comes to coronavirus risk.

"It continues to be prudent to keep as distant from people as possible, no matter where you are," he said.

Most coronavirus super-spreader events, during which one infected patient spreads the illness to an unusually large number of people, are similar: The infected person attends an indoor gathering with lots of people, like a religious service, choir practice, or birthday party.

"You can't have a super spreading event unless there are a lot of people around," Schaffner said.

Minimize the amount of time you spend in an indoor public place

If you do have to go into an indoor public space where you know they'll be lots of people, Schaffner said it's important to plan ahead — what you want to buy and where it is in the store, for example — so you can minimize how long you spend there.

"I make my grocery list ahead of time, organizing it aisle-by-aisle to be most efficient so I spend as little time there as possible," Schaffner said.

He also said that he plans grocery shopping trips based on when there will be fewer people around, like early in the morning and late at night.

Coronavirus grocery store workers
A shopper and cashier both wear masks, gloves and the cashier also has on a plastic visor at the checkout station Pat's Farms grocery store on March 31, 2020 in Merrick, New York.      Al Bello/Getty Images

Regardless of whether you're in the store for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, Schaffner said it's crucial to wear a mask.

Check to see if people in those indoor places are wearing masks

It's important to note whether the other patrons and staff who frequent the indoor places you're going to are wearing masks, Schaffner said.

"Make sure wait staff are wearing gloves and masks. If the wait staff aren't wearing masks, I'm getting my coffee across the street," he said.

coronavirus texas restaurants lockdown
Servers at The Original Ninfa's wear gloves and masks while fulfilling takeout orders from the kitchen amid the pandemic in Houston, Texas, on May 1, 2020.      MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP via Getty Images

The most important risk assessment Schaffner makes when choosing his coffee shop, for example, is how well he can maintain his distance from other customers while inside.

"I'm most concerned about how far apart I am from my fellow patrons," he said, adding that his coronavirus risk differs from that of elderly people with underlying conditions, who have the highest chance of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms if infected.

"Those groups of people should be most adherent to social distancing, and the most cautious when returning to everyday life," he said.

Go to the beach and the hiking trail to exercise — not to hang out

When spending time outdoors, Schaffer recommends avoiding situations where staying far apart becomes difficult.

People who golf, hike, or visit the beach shouldn't linger in locker rooms, trailheads, or parking lots, he said, since that's where people are more likely to stand around and have conversations without masks.

He suggests people should visit the beach for exercise, rather than tanning and relaxation.

"If you let people on a beach to exercise, they'll stay apart. If you let them bring beach umbrellas, they congregate and can't keep their distance," he said.

huntington beach california coronavirus
Thousands of beach-goers enjoy a warm, sunny day at the beach amid state-mandated stay-at-home and social distancing mandate to stave off the coronavirus pandemic in Huntington Beach, CA, on April 25, 2020.      Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty

According to Schaffner, there's no way to stay completely safe during the pandemic. "I'm not saying it's black or white: all risk or no risk," he said.

But adjusting some of our behaviors and priorities when going out into public spaces could make a big difference.