These are the most likely — and least likely — ways to spread COVID-19

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As parts of the country loosen up lockdown measures designed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, there are more options of activities for Canadians, both inside and outside.

Shopping malls have reopened across Canada and hair salons have, too. Public parks and beaches are popular gathering spots for many looking to enjoy the warm summer weather.

But what activities are safest, and what pose the most risk?

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“There’s nothing that’s 100 per cent safe and there’s nothing that’s 100 per cent unsafe,” said Timothy Sly, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

“Everything is on a probability sliding scale.”

Judging how safe it will be to partake in any activities depends on several factors, said Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and founder of EPI Research.

These include, Carr said, your susceptibility to infection, the duration of your exposure, the conditions of the environment — which include air circulation and ventilation — how close you are to others and how infectious a current “host” is.

“You won’t know (how infectious someone is), but this is why you want to stay distant,” she said.

Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist and professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News it’s also important to determine how many people will be taking part in the activity and whether you’ll be indoors or outdoors.

Another major factor is how long you plan to spend time with others, Morris said.

“Clearly staying away from crowds — which means lots of people close together — that has to be one of the primary ways of staying safe.”

Here, activities and their relative risk level.

(Note: experts said risk levels may change if people do not follow physical distancing or other public health guidelines. Health officials recommend wearing a mask in indoor businesses and public settings and in situations where physical distancing is not possible.)

Park or outdoor hangouts — lower risk

Experts tend to agree that outdoor activities are safer than indoor ones. When you’re outside, factors such as wind, sunlight and better airflow help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, which can be spread through droplets expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

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One of the safest ways to see family or friends is by meeting them in a sizeable space outside where the risk of transmission is quite low, Kate Mulligan, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, previously told Global News.

Parks are popular spaces for people to meet and spend time together, but sitting apart from members outside of your household or bubble is important. Mulligan said if you properly maintain physical distance from others outside — meaning you keep at least six feet away — you are at a relatively low risk of contracting COVID-19.

Enjoying the outdoors with members of your immediate household is still considered the safest, Mulligan added.

Larger groups increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission, said Zahid Butt, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems. Not maintaining physical distance among your group also ups your risk.

“If you’re outdoors and if you maintain that physical distancing between yourselves and other people, then you can go for a walk, you can go to the beach,” he said.

“But if it’s too crowded… then you have to wear a mask.”

Camping — lower risk

Air travel may be a no-go, meaning camping might be the best option for a getaway while coronavirus remains a serious concern, Colin Furness, a professor at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation at the University of Toronto previously told Global News.

Campgrounds that are lower in density are ideal, as are spaces where it is easy to keep away from other groups.

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While camping may pose less of a risk than going to an outdoor music festival, for example, there are still factors that could impact how safe camping might be.

Furness said camping with too large of a group from many households would be the first thing to avoid. Busy campsites and not practising physical distancing from other groups ups the risk level, too.

Shared bathrooms are also an area of concern.

“Shared washrooms, that really worries me because those are high-use,” Furness said. “On a busy campsite, people are in and out, there’s no way to do social distancing, nothing is clean, and that would be more concerning to me.”

Going to the beach — lower risk, but depends on crowds

Being on the beach in the sun is safer for you — and more dangerous for the virus, Sly said.

“The sun helps a lot because you’ve got the ultraviolet light; viruses don’t like ultraviolet light,” he explained.

That being said, beaches can become riskier at night where larger groups and alcohol is involved, Sly said. He points to beaches in Florida — a state with increasing COVID-19 cases — and said that when the sun goes down and parties start, precautions like physical distancing “disappear.”

Even in the day, how busy a beach is will affect your risk level, Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News.

“If you can go to the beach and set down your blankets or your towels, and make sure there’s enough of a circumference around you and other people, that’s going to be ideal,” she said.

Swimming pools are going to be more challenging in terms of crowding, she said. There’s going to have to be monitoring and rules if swimming pools are reopening to ensure they aren’t at full capacity, she added.

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“If you’re potentially in a pool where people are yelling and excited and jumping around … thinking about how you maintain your distance while enjoying those sorts of situations is going to be tricky to navigate,” she said.

Attending a small backyard BBQ — lower to medium risk

Again, being around others outdoors is better than being indoors with others, said Tuite.

“If you’re all gathered in the backyard… space yourselves out — don’t be physically touching people that you don’t need to be touching,” she said.

It’s also beneficial if you don’t cook for others to limit the passing of food, she said. If you are sharing items, wash your hands as much as you can and avoid touching your face. Carr says people should not share utensils and avoid using “share bowls” as done with things like chips.

Another factor with visiting someone’s backyard is the need to use their bathroom. Handwashing is key, and hosts should be sure to clean surfaces after people leave, Tuite said.

Things get riskier if there’s large groups of people at the BBQ and physical distancing is not practised, experts said. Look to guidelines in your province or territory for size limits on gatherings.

Sitting on a restaurant or bar’s patio — medium to higher risk

If you’re the only one on a restaurant’s patio, you are pretty safe, Sly said. “But then as more people come in, of course, the risk goes up.”

Patios, while outdoors, pose some additional risk as people do not wear masks while they are eating or drinking, Sly said. If you’re going inside an establishment to use a washroom, that also ups your risk level as does outdoor crowding.

Patrons should assess what other safety steps the restaurant or bar is taking, as servers should be wearing masks and staff should be frequently cleaning communal spaces like tables, counters, and door handles, Butt said. It’s also wise to have your own meal and not share food with others.

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“Choke points,” like lineups outside restaurants or stores, also pose risk as they allow for congregation, Carr said. It is not advisable to wait more than 15 minutes in a lineup where you are less than six feet apart from others.

Alcohol is another factor to consider: when people drink, they may be less likely to follow physical distancing regulations or practise good hygiene, experts said.

“We don’t want to conflate being outside with not being at risk,” Carr said. “Six feet is six feet.”

Walking around a museum — medium to higher risk

Museums are reopening across Canada, and Butt said health measures like physical distancing, handwashing, sanitizer stations and mask wearing is vital in these indoor spaces.

Interactive exhibits may need to be closed, and high-contact touch points, like railings and door handles, need to be sanitized often.

The better the museum’s ventilation system is, the better it is for visitors, Carr said. Airflow is important, and fresh air coming in is ideal.

“It really depends on what the system is in place because you don’t want to be in an environment with stagnant air — particularly given what we’re learning about how long those micronuclei can stay in the air,” Carr explained.

“So even if it’s a large indoor space that allows for more people to come in, if the ventilation system isn’t good, that’s not an ideal environment.”

Carr also says communal spaces or exhibits where groups of people are gathering are cause for concern.

Getting a haircut — depends on protocols

Masks are key in a hair salon or barbershop setting.

One of the main areas of concern in hair salons is their close quarters; not only are businesses often in small spaces, hair stylists have close (and often prolonged) contact with clients, Butt said.

Furness previously told Global News that both hair stylists and patrons should be wearing masks to curb COVID-19 transmission, and that if available, N95 masks are ideal for stylists as they screen out 95 per cent of small particles.

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Some provinces have published guidelines for salons and barbershops, with rules including reducing the number of clients in the salon at a time, spacing out appointments to ensure enough time for cleaning, and requiring both staff and clients to use the COVID-19 self-screening tool before appointments.

When deciding if it’s safe for you to get a haircut or not, consider the space, how long you will be inside and the safety measures in place.

It’s also a good idea to have public health safety inspectors do routine visits to observe how COVID-19 prevention measures are being implemented, Furness said.

“It’s not just about publishing a ‘how-to’ sheet in terms of ‘these are the things you need to hit,’ because every space is going to be unique, and every space is going to have risks,” he said.

An indoor dinner at a friend’s home — it depends

It can be incredibly challenging to physical distance inside someone’s home or during an indoor gathering, Butt said.

Local governments allow Canadians to visit with members of their bubble, but as soon as you host groups of people indoors, you are upping your COVID-19 risk.

“House parties or larger groups congregating together… and not maintaining that six feet or two meters of distance, that would be considered a kind of high-risk,” Butt said.

Community spread levels are important when evaluating risk, Carr said. In areas where there’s a high rate of community spread and more active case counts, it’s safest to avoid indoor activities with others. The lower the rate of community spread, the lower the risk.

But even within your bubble, you still want to take precautions, experts said. People within your family or intimiate bubble likely have still gone grocery shopping, for example, or interacted with others, so it’s important to be on the same page with risk and exposure opportunities. Plus, Butt said, someone could be an asymptomatic carrier, resulting in a chance of transmission.

“You still want to ask people to sanitize when they come in, to sit as far apart as possible within your home,” Carr said.

“Examine your own space and then determine what you can safely do within the space. And if it’s not safe, wait until you can have people outdoors.”

Shopping in a mall — medium risk

Just like shopping in a grocery store, wearing a mask in a mall and practising physical distancing is important, Butt said. Retail staff should limit the amount of shoppers allowed in at any given time, and have hand sanitization stations set up.

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To limit exposure risk, getting in and out of stores as quickly as possible is advisable. Lingering or ignoring distancing rules puts you in greater danger.

Because transmission is possible among people who are asymptomatic, extra precautions indoors need to be taken, Sly added.

“It just takes one person (to spread the virus),” Sly said.

“This virus is a stealth virus, unlike one we’ve ever seen before. Something like half the people who have the virus, have no signs of symptoms and they don’t even know themselves that they’ve got it. But every time they open their mouth to breathe or speak, they’re spreading it around. You just don’t know, it’s kind of a hidden danger.”

Using a public bathroom — it depends

Bathrooms have different levels of cleanliness, and there’s ways to assess if a specific washroom is safe enough for you to use, experts told Global News.

Non-touch taps are helpful, as they limit the need to touch communal surfaces. Surfaces that are shared and often touched should be cleaned regularly, Butt said.

Physical distancing within a washroom is key, which can be tricky in small washrooms. It’s also vital to wash your hands thoroughly after using the bathroom and avoid touching your face.

One-person bathrooms where you can close the door and no one else is there are safer, as you’re not sharing air with others, Furness previously told Global News. Still, good ventilation — in any indoor setting — is key.

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If it’s difficult to distance yourself from others in a bathroom, wear a mask and rethink whether it’s worth it, Furness said.

“Public washrooms are already pretty scary places,” he said. “You want to be very mindful about what you’re touching, about cleaning your hands and minimizing the amount of time you spend in there.”

— With files from Global News’ Olivia Bowden 

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out. In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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