Is it OK to go to the mall? Experts discuss the safest and riskiest spots to visit

Some areas, like parks and beaches, are safe so long as distancing measures are followed. Other areas pose more risk.
By Kerry Breen

As shelter-in-place orders end and lockdowns lift, many people are beginning to return to their regular routines. But is that wise? TODAY spoke to two experts to determine what the safest and riskiest places to visit might be.

Restaurants and bars

Dr. Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health and a professor of infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, said that even a "moderately crowded" bar or restaurant would be cause for concern.

Around the country, restaurants are being asked to ensure that social distancing requirements are met by only seating every other table or only filling the venue to a certain, limited capacity. Guests are being asked to wear masks in many areas.

Some restaurants have begun to take extreme measures to make sure that they are safe for diners, including using plastic shower curtains to separate diners and conducting temperature checks on all guests and staff. Bars have not begun to reopen in many parts of the country, but physicians warned they could be cause for concern.

"The days of crowding around a bar are kind of gone," said Dr. Purvi Parikh, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone Health in New York City. "So many people packed into a bar is not a good idea, given what we know."

Parikh warned that the problem with bars, as opposed to restaurants, would be that in bars people typically move more freely and there is a higher rate of customer turnover.

Omer said that one way restaurants and bars can accommodate people is by moving operations outside wherever possible.

"One mitigating factor is that we have evidence of a lot less transmission outdoors," he said, cautioning that social distancing would still need to be maintained. "At least for the next few months, as we figure out strategies as a global community, going outdoors would be very helpful."

Retail stores

As non-essential businesses begin to open their doors, Omer and Parikh said that it's important to remember things like masks and staying away from other customers.

"People shouldn't be allowed in (to stores) unless they're wearing masks," said Parikh. "The distancing will have to be in effect, and masks will have to be in effect. Surfaces will need to be cleaned. (Staff) will have to clean and wipe down surfaces frequently as people are touching them."

While other shops, like grocery stores and other essential businesses, have been open for most of the pandemic, Parikh said that places like clothing stores will present unique challenges.

"In dressing rooms, you'll have people in and out, touching everything and changing clothes," she said, repeating that staff would need to frequently disinfect surfaces.

Omer said that while going out to retail stores or malls would be a relatively low-risk activity, it would depend on the density of the area and the area's coronavirus status — for example, if an area had higher rates of infection, it would be riskier to go shopping in that area.

"Mitigate the risk," he said. "Opt for curbside pickup or delivery, order online. Even if you are going out, take a list with you so you're not wandering around. In lines, be respectful of markings and distance ... In and of itself, stores, grocery stores, do not present a higher risk. They don't pose zero risk, but they don't pose extraordinary risk."

Outdoor parks and playgrounds

Parks are relatively safe, according to Parikh and Omer, so long as appropriate distancing measures are taken. Increasing evidence shows that the virus is less likely to spread outdoors.

"Even with the parks, I would say to exercise caution," said Parikh. "There's all these pictures of people in New York (City) sharing blankets and that's too close. That's not enough social distancing. Even in a park you have to be careful that there's enough space and that you're wearing a mask."

Omer said that it makes sense to cancel large events that would take place in parks, but small groups socializing should be safe.

However, both cautioned that playgrounds and children's play areas were different matters. While there is growing evidence that COVID-19 does not spread easily on surfaces, Omer said that since children have a tendency to "touch everything," they could be more likely to spread the virus from the playground to other family members.

"Playgrounds are a different thing," said Omer. "I'm a big fan of activity and people going out, but maybe kids should start looking at things like hiking ... A playground is a special category. It's hard to keep crazy cleaning protocols in these situations."

Parikh said that it would be difficult to keep playground equipment cleaned and disinfected, even if people took measures like wearing masks and visiting play areas during less busy hours.

"You have to think about what your kid is rolling around in," Parikh said. "How often is that stuff cleaned, and disinfected?"

Pools and beaches

Much like at parks, the risk of transmission at pools and beaches is reduced because they are outside. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also say that the virus is unlikely to spread through water, and maintained pools contain chemicals like chlorine that will deactivate the virus.

“The bigger issue is that you have to change in the shared locker rooms, and people are often touching the mouth, nose and face and then maybe touching the lockers,” Dr. Michael Ison, an infectious disease physician at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, told TODAY in April.

Omer said that the bigger risk at pools and beaches is people gathering in large groups.

"It doesn’t have to be a desolate beach. But if it’s a moderately busy beach where people sit in clusters, friend/family clusters away from each other, and there’s no people mixing or grouping together, if that’s the kind of stuff that’s happening, that's OK," he said. "But if it’s a crowded beach, a 'Baywatch' kind of a scene, with boardwalks, that’s not a good idea."

Someone else's home

Parikh said that if you decide to visit someone else's home, it's important to talk to them about their health and habits during the pandemic.

"It all depends on who's living there, where they've been," she said. "Generally a good rule of thumb is ask 'Have (you) been sick in the past two weeks, or had contact with anyone who was sick?' I would even ask if they've been traveling or been out in crowded places, because anytime you go to an environment that's not yours there's risk, but you can minimize that risk."

Parikh said that while it might be awkward to ask someone about things like disinfecting their home or if they've been social distancing, that knowledge can help you stay safer.

"Theoretically, the risk can be low, but anytime there's an unknown factor, you're taking a risk," she said.