25 Common Activities, Ranked by Coronavirus Risk

From borrowing library books to pumping iron in a packed gym.

Originally Published: 

States are reopening in the face of COVID-19 and school planning has begun, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to go out or to attend. So you’re staying home in quarantine as much as possible. Yet the pandemic isn’t going to end anytime soon. At some point, you’re going to need to take some risks. Which are the safest?

Your personal risk of catching the coronavirus depends first and foremost on community transmission rates. If you live in Florida, your risk of picking up COVID-19 is much higher than if you live in Wyoming. However, you can’t only consider your family’s risk of catching the virus, but also how sick they’ll become if they do. Older people, particularly those over 65, and anyone with underlying conditions is at particularly high risk. And if you work in a job with potential exposure, going out means you could spread the virus around your community.

The risk of partaking in a particular activity depends on several factors. First, you’re much less likely to catch COVID-19 outdoors. You’re safest when the people around you are social distancing and wearing a mask. And the more people an activity exposes you to, the greater the chance you have of bringing the coronavirus home to your family.

It’s a tricky balance, and there are no universal rules. But this list of 25 common activities, ranked from lowest to highest risk, will help you make sense of the dangers.

25. Borrowing Books From the Library

If you’re in and out of the library quickly, borrowing a book isn’t much of a risk. Don’t worry too much about the book itself being contaminated; surfaces aren’t a major source of coronavirus transmission. To be safe, wash your hands after reading.

Change the Risk: For extra safety, order your books for curbside pick-up so you don’t have to go inside.

24. Going for a Well Visit to the Doctor

Doctors’ offices are taking the highest level of care to keep your family safe. They may require staff and patients to wear a mask and social distance, and they clean frequently. That being said, if you don’t need to go, don’t. But don’t make the call yourself. If you or your kids are scheduled for a yearly check-up, ask the doctor if it’s okay to postpone. Kids may need essential vaccines.

Change the Risk: Ask if you can wait in the car until the doctor is ready to see you so you can avoid the waiting room.

23. Playing on a Playground

At the beginning of the pandemic, playgrounds closed down and talk of transmission of COVID-19 by surface was at a fever pitch. Now we know COVID-19 is primarily spread from person to person. If no one else is on the playground, your kid should be fine to play on it. Touching contaminated surfaces isn’t a huge risk (but, you know, wash your hands anyway) and sunlight inactivates the virus in just over a half-hour. If the playground is crowded, however, stay away. Though you’re less likely to catch the coronavirus outside, it is possible.

Change the Risk: Ask if any friends or family members have a backyard playground your kids could climb on for a few hours. That way you know no other kids will show up.

22. Camping

Staking out a tent in a campground is a low-risk outdoor activity. If you drive to a local spot and avoid communal toilets and showers, your risk is even lower.

Change the Risk: Go backcountry camping and your risk drops to zero. You can’t catch COVID from trees. Bears, though… just avoid the bears.

21. Shopping for Groceries

Only shop at grocery stores that require masks, and shop during off-peak hours when you have the store to yourself. If you limit your trips, are in and out quickly, and social distance inside, your risk should be low. Leave the kids at home to reduce family exposure.

Change the Risk: Schedule online pick-up or delivery for less human contact.

20. Setting Up a Coronavirus Playdate

Your kid is lonely in quarantine, and they need social play, which is critical for their development. A playdate can help. Before you schedule one, have an honest conversation with the other family about your social distancing practices and history of potential exposure. Host the playdate outside and have everyone present wear a mask. Only invite one family’s kids, and don’t have a playdate with any other children for two weeks after.

Change the Risk: Plan a bike ride or other activity that makes social distancing easy.

19. Forming a “Pod” or “Social Bubble”

A pod is a collection of two or a few families that exclusively hang out with each other during the pandemic. Forming a pod allows you to shed some stress with a close group of friends while increasing your total risk of getting COVID-19 by a small amount. A pod also allows families to split duties such as childcare and meal prep.

Change the Risk: If you want a bit of companionship but with less risk, wear masks and social distance within your pod.

18. Attending a Protest

Though the media has largely stopped covering Black Lives Matter protests, activists around the country are still standing up against police brutality. Protests are often crowded, but they’re also outside and many attendants wear masks. Take solace in the fact that public health experts don’t think protests contributed to the current COVID-19 surge.

Change the Risk: If you don’t want to risk exposure but want to make social change, call and write to local government officials to demand they defund the police.

17. Going to a Nail Salon

You can’t find social distance while you’re getting your nails done, and you can only do so indoors. However, it’s a one-time interaction for a short amount of time. All in all, chances are you’ll be fine. But why risk it? Despite the low ranking, this is low risk for low reward.

Change the Risk: Purchase nail polish online and have a spa day at home.

16. Getting a Haircut

If you can suffer through a quarantine hairdo, do it. Like getting your nails done, haircuts make social distancing impossible, and they’re generally indoors. But haircuts also require the stylist’s face to be near your face. If you decide you can’t do without a trim, look for a barbershop that requires masks and has decent ventilation.

Change the Risk: Participate in a trust exercise and let your partner cut your hair. Who else is going to see it anyway?

15. Visiting the Beach

Let’s be real. No one is going to wear a mask on the beach. But if there are few people around and they all social distance, the lack of masks may not be a big issue since the beach is outside with lots of wind to disperse the virus. If the shore is too crowded to social distance, however, be ready to bail ship and head home.

Change the Risk: Take your beach day during off-peak hours, such as early on a weekday.

14. Attending Religious Services

Church and other indoor religious services can reduce risk by requiring masks and blocking off seating to enforce social distancing. If yours doesn’t, be wary, especially because services involve large crowds together for an extended period of time. If you do go, skip the socialization afterward.

Change the Risk: Outdoor services are safer. Even better, look for one online.

13. Watching a Movie in Theaters

Less risky than going to a bar or gym, movie theaters can enforce social distancing by blocking off seats. Risk is also naturally lower in a theater because people aren’t talking and they’re all facing the same direction, which reduces risk of transmission. However, movie-goers are indoors in public for two hours, theaters may not require masks, and air conditioning could undo the benefits of social distancing.

Change the Risk: You may miss a new release, but watch a movie at home instead. Grab some popcorn and a projector if you want the full experience.

12. Eating at a Restaurant

Though some restaurants are open, that doesn’t mean they’re safe, even at half capacity. People can’t wear masks when they eat, and air conditioning can spread the coronavirus even with social distancing. Choose outdoor seating when possible.

Change the Risk: If you want food, order takeout. Eat your meal as a picnic in a park if you want to get out of the house.

11. Going to a Cookout

The good thing about cookouts is that they’re largely outside. But don’t go inside the house, even to beat the heat. If you host or attend a cookout, make sure only a small group is invited. There’s no magic number, but keep it tiny.

Change the Risk: Form a pod and have a cookout. With a pod, you can have as many cookouts as you want.

10. Playing Sports

Sports that can be played outside and with social distancing are safest. Tennis? You’re probably good. Basketball? Too up close and personal. Whichever you choose, play in a mask and stay further away than you usually would because you breathe harder when you exercise.

Change the Risk: Instead of joining a team or playing with friends, teach the kids how to play Wiffle ball or touch football.

9. Swimming at a Public Pool

Taking a dive at the community pool is probably high risk, depending on how crowded the pool is. Chlorine kills the virus, so the pool itself is safe. But in the water and changing room and around the deck, people probably aren’t going to wear masks. It’s going to be difficult to social distance the whole time you’re there — and even harder to make sure your kids do.

Change the Risk: Find a friend with a private pool — whether it be in-ground, above-ground, or a blow-up kiddie pool — and set up a playdate or ask to go for a solo dip.

8. Sending the Kids to Daycare

Most kids don’t get severely sick with COVID-19, so their personal health risk of attending daycare is low. But kids can spread the disease, both to your household and to the other children at daycare. Find out if your daycare is taking the pandemic seriously, or if it’s packed indoors with unmasked kids.

Change the Risk: If you need childcare and can afford a babysitter, do so. But first, make sure they are being careful about social distancing in their daily life.

7. Flying on a Plane

Getting through security and waiting in the terminal can make social distancing difficult. In the plane itself, some airline companies are leaving the middle seat empty while others are packing their flights full. Though you will be trapped in close quarters with strangers for hours, planes do have effective filtration systems that take airborne virus particles out of the air, though it may not stop larger droplets from infecting you.

Change the Risk: If you need to travel far, opt for a road trip instead.

6. Going to Disney World

Your big Disney World vacation should wait until next year. There’s too much of a risk with large crowds gathering at the parks, and Florida is experiencing a surge in cases right now. Besides, the magic you’re expecting won’t be the same under pandemic rules.

Change the Risk: Plan a Disney-themed day at home, complete with classic movies, costumes, and free virtual rides.

5. Visiting the Grandparents

Although older people are at the highest risk of getting severely sick with COVID-19, it could be worth visiting the grandparents if they’re lonely because loneliness can take a real toll on their mental and physical health. If you do meet up, schedule the visit so that it’s outside with masks and social distancing. Be extra wary if the grandparents have underlying conditions, and don’t take the risk if they live in a nursing home, where the virus can run rampant.

Change the Risk: Stand outside the grandparents’ door or window and talk on the phone through the glass. It may feel silly, but it’s more personal than a video call and less dangerous than a face-to-face meetup.

4. Enrolling the Kids in Camp

Summer is halfway over, but there’s still a long way to go. If you can keep the kids home without going crazy, opt for that. But if community transmission is low in your area and you need camp as childcare, search for one that is local, outside, and requires masks and social distancing.

Change the Risk: Skip any sort of indoor camp and choose day camp over sleepaway camp for a lower risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

3. Returning to the Office

Returning to the office is the lowest work-related level of risk, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. But even though you’ll be safer at work than doctors and grocery store workers, there’s still a risk, especially with cases surging across the U.S. The risk goes up if your office has poor ventilation, doesn’t require masks, and is at full capacity with in-person meetings.

Change the Risk: If you can work from home, advocate to do so — especially if you take public transit to the office.

2. Sending the Kids Back to School

Though some countries have sent their kids back to school without a surge in cases, the U.S. is nowhere near a point where that’s feasible. Kids and teachers will die if they go back to school this fall. If your community has a low transmission rate and your district is taking extreme precautions, such as cutting class sizes in half and hosting classes outside, maybe you’re one of the exceptions. But be wary.

Change the Risk: Homeschooling is your safest option this fall, but there are a number of factors that might limit your risk. Fill out a risk matrix to assess it.

1. Working Out at the Gym

Heavy breathing indoors means that social distancing in gyms isn’t as effective as it is elsewhere. If you are going to work out in a gym, get your reps in during off-peak hours and wear a mask when running, lifting, or doing anything else. Do so even though it sucks. Do so even if no one else is doing it.

Change the Risk: Work out outside or at home. The gym will be risky for a while, so order some weights if you want to bulk up.

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