Museums are reopening. Comedy clubs are hosting outdoor shows. Yoga, spin, and other workout classes are resuming, indoors and out. Flea markets and vintage thrifts are popping up. And plenty of other events are starting to return, making it once again possible to fill up your social calendar.
But should you?
With a pandemic still looming, and statewide coronavirus case numbers climbing since the green phase began, how safe is it to go to in-person events?
Here are some questions to help you figure out your risk, according to health experts.
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What can I control?
No in-person event is zero risk: Control what you can. “Going out anywhere, even the grocery store, carries some risk with it,” says Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University. “There’s not anything outside of your household that will be zero risk, so you first have to be able to accept that.”
Your home is still the safest place to be. But months into the pandemic, most of us are experiencing major quarantine fatigue. Fortunately, we’re beginning to learn more about coronavirus transmission and how to lower your risk. You can’t control every part of an in-person event. But you can lower your risk by wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, and practicing proper hand-washing.
Will everyone around you do the same? It’s common to feel anxious about the unknowns. You’ll need to weigh the risks with the rewards (such as the potential of transmission vs. the social benefits of getting out), and decide what’s right for you.
“People should feel empowered about their decisions and in control of at least some of the risk,” says Johnson. “If you show up and the situation is making you feel uncomfortable, you shouldn’t be afraid to head home.”
What is my personal risk right now?
Always take a look at the big picture first, says Patricia Henwood, associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and leader of the Emergency Medicine COVID-19 Task Force at Jefferson Health.
“What are the current COVID numbers at that point in time? What are your individual risk factors and those of your family or close contacts? And then evaluate the risk of the event itself,” says Henwood.
If you, or someone you regularly see in person, is considered high risk, err on the side of caution, and so, too, if case numbers start to spike in your area.
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Is the event outdoors?
Outdoor events are better than indoor ones — but not always. Being outdoors makes it easier for the virus to dissipate in the air.
But there are other factors to consider, too. Exercise classes, for example, have built-in challenges if you’re sharing equipment and you are huffing and puffing through cardio routines without a mask. An outdoor class is better than a stuffy gym, of course, but both carry a level of risk.
“Anything where there could be a potential for more droplets or aerosols in the air is something people need to take into consideration,” says Henwood. “A distanced yoga class outside would be of less concern, and even so, it’d be safer to wear a mask. There are a number of factors that go into transmission, and each time you peel one of those layers away, your risk increases.”
And again, it’s situational. The indoor nature of a museum, for example, isn’t ideal, but masks are required, and more people may be wearing them, since it’s not a boisterous, chatty space and drinks are off limits.
“Usually it’s not a party atmosphere so there might not be as much issue with people wearing masks,” says Henwood. “As long as you’re maintaining distance and hand hygiene and wearing a mask, it’s better than an event where people are clustered.”
While limited visitor capacity makes social distancing easier, outdoor arboretums, like Longwood Gardens, or national historic parks, like Valley Forge, remain even better alternatives.
Does the event include eating and drinking?
If droplets and aerosols are a concern, you might be wondering, is it safe to go to an event like a comedy show or concert? If everyone’s masked (100% correctly) and six feet or more apart, experts say the laughter and singing aren’t too concerning. The bigger challenge: The snacks and cocktails often served during shows.
When food and drink are available, this means that at some point, masks will go down. Imbibe one too many spirited beverages, and the risk continues to go up.
“Even when conditions are ideal, it becomes a slippery slope when alcohol is involved,” says Johnson. “People start to let down their guard and it impairs the awareness that you need to have in a pandemic context.”
Whether or not you choose to partake in the drinking, others around you might. And as we can all imagine, getting a drunk person to wear a mask correctly isn’t always easy. With drinks, and also unmasking for food, social distancing remains crucial.
Does the event require a ticket?
Ticketing is a sign of crowd control. Most events and museums are currently limiting visitor capacity by limiting ticket sales. Many require advanced reservations.
But flea markets and other events don’t always require a ticket.
“If they’re not monitoring the people who are coming, which is challenging with some outdoor events, that poses a higher risk,” says Johnson. “Any time you’re thinking about going somewhere, whether it’s a flea market or a farmers market, if there are too many people, be prepared to change your plans.”
What tangential risks are there to the event?
There are more risks besides the actual event: how you’ll get there, who will be joining you, and how long you’ll be at the event.
If the event isn’t within walking distance and you don’t own a car, your risk of exposure goes up. If the event is lengthy and mask compliance and social distancing measures are iffy, risk also goes up. And you may have to use the bathroom. If you do, the basics — wearing a mask, good hand hygiene, and keeping it quick — will help.
Then there’s the people you’re with. If you don’t live with them, you’ll need to consider their behaviors and risk levels, too.
Alas, there are a lot of factors to consider. But that doesn’t mean you need to swear off all events.
“The thing is for people to think about how they can do activities as responsibly as possible,” says Henwood. And, because the pandemic is not going away soon, “there are psycho-social considerations to consider, too.”
“But having larger gatherings or parties in a home is another thing — those remain among the highest-risk events,” she says.
Can you afford to spend two weeks in quarantine?
One other thing to consider is whether or not you can afford spending two weeks at home. If you have a job or person you need to show up for daily, the answer might be no.
“You have to think through the consequences of what happens if someone in the group is sick — even if you don’t get sick,” says Henwood.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that you’re considered a “close contact” if you’ve been within six feet of an infected person for as little as 15 minutes. Close contacts should self-quarantine, whether symptoms show up or not.