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10 activities that expose you to coronavirus, from most to least risky

These are the riskiest and safest things to do right now, according to an MD and the CDC.

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Air travel is not recommended by most health authorities during the pandemic.

Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

The US has reached a huge milestone with at least 77 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered and an additional approval from the Food and Drug Administration for another vaccine. But as vaccine rollout continues, much of the general public is still waiting for a shot, and even those who have been vaccinated are encouraged to continue following COVID-19 safety protocols. 

You know that wearing a face mask and social distancing is important for protecting yourself and others from the coronavirus -- but do you know how safe it really is to get a haircut versus going to a friend's barbecue outside? Even though almost every situation is unique and depends on a ton of variables, health experts say there are some activities that are generally less risky than others when it comes to protecting yourself and others from COVID-19

Much of the country is seeing a decline in virus cases, but let's face it, the pandemic is far from over. New variants that may spread faster -- and may be less vulnerable to vaccines -- are spreading. So you could be at more risk now than at the beginning of the pandemic, even though the numbers are starting to decline compared to where they were in January. If you have been used to doing only low-risk activities for so long and then all of a sudden you engage in multiple medium- to high-risk activities back-to-back (even if it's only for a few days) you are still putting yourself at serious risk -- no matter how safe you have been for months.

The below activities are ranked in order from highest to lowest risk of the chance you could become infected or infect someone else with the virus. These activities are based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, as well as expert insight from infectious disease expert and MD Dr. Sandra Kesh. It's best to do as few medium- to high-risk activities as possible. The less frequently you expose yourself to risky situations, the less likely you are to contract the virus. 

"With most of these activities there is relative risk and it depends largely on two things: the environment and what you do in that environment. The thing that's hard to control is what's happening in the environment," Kesh says. Due to the lack of control you have in any environment outside your own home, the exact risk level is largely dependent on individual circumstances, like if your community has high infection rates. 

Air travel 

Risk level: High

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Flying is considered one of the highest risk activities you can do during COVID-19.

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Why it's risky

According to Kesh, flying is one of the riskiest situations to put yourself in when it comes to exposure to COVID-19. Unless it's absolutely necessary, you should avoid air travel until the majority of the population is vaccinated, or at the very least, until you've received the full dose of the vaccine. 

"Airports tend to be high-stress places. People are always worried about making their flight, going to the security checks -- there's a lot of distraction," Kesh says. "So the kind of focus that we are able to maintain with social distancing, the masks and hand hygiene, it sometimes goes out the window because your attention is scattered, it's noisy and you're trying to figure out where to go. So even people who are well meaning, the rules tend to go by the wayside."

The other problem with airports is that you can encounter people from all over the world or country and those people could be coming from high-risk places and carrying the virus with them. 

Once you are on the plane, it's almost impossible to stay six feet apart from others, even if no one is sitting near you. Many airlines have dropped their initial social-distancing measures to block out seats, so you'll likely be sitting right next to other travelers.

"When you're sitting on a plane waiting for it to take off, there is no air movement. If you turn on the fan above your head, that's the only air moving. It's a really terrific environment for one person to potentially infect the whole plane," Kesh says. 

Once planes are in flight, however, most use hospital-grade HEPA filters which help maintain clean air throughout the aircraft. According to a recent article published in JAMA, the risk of contracting COVID-19 while on a flight is low mainly because of the air filtration systems. It's important to note that two of the authors involved with the JAMA article have affiliations with airlines, which is considered a conflict of interest. The CDC also says that while germs do not spread easily on flights because of the filters, it is difficult to maintain social distance, which could put you at risk if you are sitting in close proximity to someone who is infected.

How to reduce risk

If you need to fly, you should wear a mask at all times. Absolutely do not fly if you have been exposed to someone who tested positive within the last two weeks or if you have symptoms yourself. 

Try to book a flight that is less crowded, even if you have to go at a time that is not ideal. Check with airlines to see which are limiting capacity and deep-cleaning planes between flights. 

When you get on the plane, be sure to wipe down your seat and tray with disinfectant wipes. If you can bring a seat cover, that is even better. If you go to the bathroom on the plane, be sure to wash your hands and use hand sanitizer when you touch anything that others could touch. 

Going to a bar

Risk level: High

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Bars are fairly high-risk environments when it comes to COVID-19.

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Why it's risky

If bars are open in your state, it may be tempting to grab a drink with friends. But according to Kesh, bars are considered high-risk when it comes to your chance of contracting the virus. The first problem is that drinking disinhibits you, making it more likely that you or those around you will forget to wear a mask or to social distance. 

"Bars are noisy, so you're yelling your drink order at the bar tender and other people are right by you -- it's really a perfect environment for that shared air space which we get so worried about," Kesh says. The other risk factor is hygiene -- when is the last time you went to a super clean bar? The chances that sanitary measures are a priority at most bars is not great -- some may do better than others, but still the risk is there.

How to reduce risk

In this case, totally avoiding bars is the best way to reduce risk. For now, drinking at home or outdoors, while social distancing, is best.

Getting a haircut 

Risk level: High

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Getting a haircut is risky since it puts you in close proximity to another person for an extended period.

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Why it's risky

It may seem harmless enough, but getting your haircut can put you at significant risk for getting infected. Think about it, how often are you putting yourself in close proximity (less than six feet) from a relative stranger for more than 15 minutes these days? This is essentially what a haircut is, since you are required to be very close to a hairstylist, who may or may not be carrying the virus, for prolonged periods of time. 

Even if you're wearing masks, remember that they do not make you invincible, especially at such close proximity, though they will lessen your risk of transmitting or getting the virus.

How to reduce the risk

"The salon shouldn't be crowded, it should be well-ventilated and they should keep the doors and windows open so there is good airflow. If they have an air conditioner or fan, that should be on," Kesh says. Many salons are also limiting the number of clients who are allowed to be in the salon at once and some are requiring that all stylists and clients wear masks, which is important to ensure safety. 

Besides checking that these measures are in place by calling before you arrive or book an appointment, what kind of appointment you have makes a difference too. For example, a quick trim done on dry hair is much faster than getting highlights or color, for example. I know my typical color and cut appointment takes upwards of two hours, which is a long time to be around other people in a hair salon and in close proximity to a stylist. 

Eating inside a restaurant

Risk level: High to medium 

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Eating inside is risky for several reasons -- including the fact that diners need to remove face masks to eat.

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Why it's risky

Eating inside at a restaurant can be risky for a few different reasons. First, being inside and around others puts you at risk of exposure to people carrying the virus. If you are outside, it's much more likely that anything in the air will disperse quicker, meaning there's less of a chance that you breath in infected air particles. 

You are also going to be around people who are largely not wearing masks and covering their faces, since it's pretty hard to keep a mask on while you eat. Finally, being around servers is also a risk since you will be talking to and interacting them at a close proximity pretty frequently. 

How to reduce risk

Your best bet is to opt for takeout and eat at home. The next best choice is dining outside. Whether you dine inside or outside, you should make sure that the area is not crowded. 

Also look into the businesses safety guidelines and sanitation protocols -- does it seem like this restaurant is taking extra safety measures and taking the virus seriously? Are all employees covering their faces at all times, even in the kitchen where you can't see?

Seeing friends inside

Risk level: High to medium

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Many health experts suggest that indoor social gatherings drove the winter uptick in cases of COVID-19.

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Why it's risky

Getting together with friends or family inside depends again on the number of people, how well you know them and the amount of exposure they've had leading up to coming into contact with you. If you have a circle of friends who you know are responsible with social distancing and avoid going out and being in groups, then you are safer than if you invite your friend over who went to a bar the past weekend. 

Health authorities, like the CDC, encourage you to limit seeing friends indoors as much as possible. It's much easier to spread the virus inside since people are likely gathered closer together, talking and touching surfaces like doors, tables, chairs and more. Some experts suggest that parties and other indoor gatherings of friends and family are causing a significant number of new cases. 

"The thing that I see a lot of is when we are around our friends, people tend to relax," Kesh says. "Then they have a few drinks and they relax even more so the masks come off and everyone gets closer together, then before you know it everyone is having face-to-face conversations without a mask on." Those face-to-face conversations can easily transmit the virus from one person to the next.

How to reduce risk

If you have friends over at your home, be sure to ask everyone to wear a mask and limit the number of people so you can remain properly spaced apart. Also, be very selective about who you invite over -- now is not the time to invite people you don't really know or trust. Keep it limited to a close circle who you know have been responsible. If you can't do that, then you should be outside and not indoors.

Be sure to encourage people to keep their distance and ventilate your home by opening windows and using fans and the AC if you have it.

Going to a gym

Risk level: Medium

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Gyms are not the ideal place to be since people breathe hard and exhale forcefully, making it easier to spread the virus.

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Why it's risky

Gyms were some of the first businesses to reopen in some areas after the initial COVID-19 shutdowns, but they aren't necessarily the safest place to go. First of all, safety largely depends on how big the gym is, how crowded it is and how well you are able to distance yourself from others. Also, this does not include group fitness classes or group training, which Kesh and the CDC say you should avoid for now.

"The thing that makes the gym different from other places if you have a lot of people panting and we know that the more you exhale with force the farther those viral particles will go," Kesh says. "And the thing that's harder to control is most people will not be wearing a mask when they are trying to workout, so then you are going to have a lot of forced exhaled air."

How to reduce risk

Kesh recommends making sure that the gym is not crowded when you go. You can call beforehand and see if they are limiting people in the gym or ask how full it is before you go. You can also wear a mask while exercising in proximity to others, especially indoors. 

She also recommends checking that the gym has good air conditioning and is taking other measures to ensure good air flow and safety. 

"People need to be much more spaced out and there needs to be good air ventilation and good air conditioning," Kesh says. "All of these places that are indoors need to stay on top of changing their AC filters, make sure they have a good HVAC system, have good exhaust fans in the bathrooms and the other places where we've seen the potential for transmission. So if we do all of those things the right way, the gym can be a low to medium risk area."

You should also be sure to wipe down any and all equipment before and after you touch it and avoid using shared items that are hard to clean after each use, like a resistance band for example.

"Some people will say if you feel well enough to go to the gym, then you won't be affected. But a lot of the transmission we are seeing, maybe even up to 40%, is happening in the presymptomatic or asymptomatic people -- and those are the people who look fine, feel fine and may be working out and they may be able to spread it. So that's the situation where I would be more worried," Kesh says. 

Grocery shopping

Risk level: Medium to low, depending on the environment

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Grocery shopping can be relatively safe if you are careful and avoid crowded stores.

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Why it's risky

According to Kesh, the most important thing to consider with grocery shopping is how crowded the store is. It's better to choose a store that limits the capacity and where you know you will feel more safe. The more frequently you have to stand near someone whether that's in line or while selecting your food, the more risk you have for being exposed.

How to reduce risk

Choose less crowded stores and go at off hours, like a Tuesday night at 7 p.m. versus a Saturday morning at 10 a.m. You should also check if the store is taking extra measures, like placing plexiglass or plastic barriers between you and the cashier, wiping down grocery carts after every use, or taking other measures to encourage social distancing, like by marking six-foot distances on the floor in lines.

Eating outside 

Risk level: Medium to low

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If you eat outside at a restaurant you should still practice social distancing and cover your face when you are not eating.

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Why it's risky

Eating outdoors, if you are able to social distance correctly and avoid crowded areas, is much less risky than eating inside. The main concern with eating outdoors is that you and others will have to remove their masks to eat and you will still have to be in contact with food servers or waitstaff.

"Outdoors viral particles and droplets disperse in open air much more quickly. And hopefully everyone is wearing a mask, but again if the mask is off while you are eating, there is still a risk, even though it's lower."

How to reduce risk

Be sure to sit at tables that are well spaced apart. Some outdoor dining areas have plexiglass or plastic dividers in between tables, which is even better. Check that the restaurant you are going to is prioritizing sanitation, employee hygiene and that all staff wears masks. You should wear your own mask as much as possible, especially when talking or waiting for your food. 

Seeing friends outside 

Risk level: Medium to low

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It's much better to visit with friends or family in an outdoor setting than inside.

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Why it's risky

If you are going to socialize, gathering with friends outside is the best way to do this. Especially in a more controlled environment like your own backyard. This way you can limit how many people are there and who you come into contact with. The exception that could make this risky is if many people are crowded together, especially if there are people you don't really know.

How to reduce risk

Just like if you are having friends over indoors, limit the number of people so you can social distance appropriately. You should still wear masks while outside and encourage people to practice proper hand hygiene by letting them know where a sink is and providing hand sanitizer.

Going to a park

Risk level: Low

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If you go to a park, be sure to maintain social distancing and wear a mask.

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Why it's risky

Going to a park is a lower-risk activity since it is outdoors and ideally you have more space between you and others. But if the park is crowded and people are not wearing masks or social distancing, the risk level increases. You may also encounter many people on the way to and from the park, which you should take into consideration.

How to reduce risk

"I count parks as low-risk environments as long as you are wearing masks and keeping that six-foot rule," Kesh says. "I've seen some city parks that have paint on the grass to help distance people, but they need to follow those rules."

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How to be completely safe

The only way to keep yourself 100% free from risk is to completely isolate yourself from society and live somewhere you can be completely self-sustaining. But it's just not realistic (or conducive to good mental or emotional health) to live like that. We have to interact with others, even if it's just while getting groceries.

If you are immunocompromised or live with someone who is, however, you probably want to steer clear from anything on the list that is considered higher risk. For everyone else, the fewer high and medium risk activities you do, the better.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.