5 ways you might be spreading COVID-19 without even realizing it

We're all sick of being cooped up — but don't let that translate into risky behavior.
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Doctors say one of their biggest pet peeves is when people keep their masks off the entire time they're seated at a restaurant.DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP via Getty Images

It's hard to blame anyone who's feeling a little pandemic fatigue — by now, aren't we all?

But experts warn that people should be careful not to fall into risky behavior just because they're sick of being cooped up at home.

COVID-19 cases are on the rise in all 50 states, according to NBC News data. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, has said that small gatherings are driving the new outbreaks.

"People are letting their guards down right at the worst time," Dr. Daniel Griffin, head of infectious disease at ProHEALTH in New York, told TODAY.

At the beginning of the pandemic, large gatherings at events like weddings and places like nursing homes and schools were the main places where the virus was spreading. But now spread is coming from more low-key gatherings such as game nights and dinner parties, according to experts.

And whether they're letting things slide because of pandemic fatigue or just thinking that their behavior isn't very risky, many people are contributing to the spread without even realizing it. Keep yourself — and your family — in check by watching out for these five common ways you might be slipping up.

Going maskless while eating out

While it's true that most restaurants don't require customers to wear their masks while seated, doctors say people should still try to keep their masks on as much as possible — even if that means pulling your mask down to take a bite and then putting it right back on.

Dr. Ala Stanford is a surgeon and founder of the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, a mobile testing operation in the Philadelphia area aimed at helping African Americans, who are disproportionately affected by the virus. She said that this particular behavior is the one that "drives me crazy."

For example, during a recent meal at a hospital cafeteria, Stanford looked around and realized that all the other diners were chatting and had their masks pulled down to their chins.

"I was so uncomfortable, I had to go to my car," she told TODAY.

The bottom line? If you're done eating or haven't gotten your food yet, wear your mask properly.

Pulling down your mask to talk

Doctors know people mean well when they do this. Maybe they're speaking to an elderly person or someone who is deaf or hard of hearing.

Yet it's better to be creative and find another way to communicate if speaking through the mask isn't working, such as writing a note on paper. When people speak without a mask, they're sending tiny aerosols through the air, which could potentially make someone else sick.

Doing the 'teenage drift'

Griffin said he's seen people meet a friend outside for a "socially distanced walk," intending to stay six feet apart, but as time goes on, they slowly creep closer together.

"I refer to this as the 'teenage drift,' but it happens to everyone," he said. "People get excited and animated as they're talking and next thing you know, they're five feet apart, four feet, three feet, right next to each other."

If you invite someone out for a socially distanced hang, makes sure it stays just that: distanced.

Thinking small social gatherings are OK

With the holidays quickly approaching, it can be tempting to gather with friends and family outside your bubble. But even small get-togethers can be dangerous.

"What we've been seeing in the last few weeks is that the majority of the spread is occurring in the homes, when one family is getting together with one to two other families," Griffin said.

That means game nights, dinner parties, sleepovers and football Sundays can all raise the risk of transmission.

In Colorado, seven people were infected with the virus while playing the dice game bunco, according to The Washington Post.

Feeling invincible because you're outside

Speaking of social gatherings, being outside doesn't necessarily mean that you're safe.

Experts are concerned about events such as youth sports games.

"What really shocks me is how many parents are clustered within six feet, their masks pulled down so they can cheer and shout at their children," Griffin said. "I think we're seeing potential exposures not just for the athletes, but for the spectators as well."

While it is safer to be outdoors than indoors, doctors still encourage people to wear masks and stay six feet apart when possible.

They also acknowledge that doing so is tough, and that people are tired.

"I think that it’s pretty hard right now to find someone who is not suffering from pandemic fatigue, even people who have had firsthand experience with how horrible COVID-19 is," Griffin said. "There is only so long most of us can handle being isolated, not spending time with people we love."

But they say that the precautions now will be worth it later.

"It's a small sacrifice for a lifetime of times together," Stanford said.