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Doctors rank activities by COVID-19 risk

With the world opening back up regardless of whether the coronavirus pandemic is over or not, those of us forced to go back out into the big blue room need guidelines about the relative risks of various activities. Four Michigan-based public health experts have offered a ranking of the risk level of different activities as it pertains to the coronavirus.

The four doctors pointed to five factors in their ranking: whether it’s an indoor or outdoor activity, estimated proximity to others, exposure time, likelihood of participants taking precautions, and personal risk level.

Of course, there are a number of caveats to this ranking. The doctors give an example of tennis as being a safe activity, but if your tennis partner has COVID-19, your risk is pretty high. On the other end, bars are risky, but only if someone in the bar has the virus. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing who’s infected and infectious.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • Outdoor activities tend to be safer than indoor ones.
  • Singing, heavy breathing, and loud talking are risk factors.
  • Alcohol consumption is another risk factor.
  • Crowds are still to be avoided.

Here’s an overview of the riskiest and least-risky activities. For a full discussion of the reasonings behind the rankings, check out the article at

High risk activities

Here are the activities the experts said were the highest risk, listed in the order of riskiness and with some of our own notes based on our coverage:

  • Bars: You can’t wear a mask and drink, people are packed in together, and people make poor choices when they’re drunk. We’d add that bars aren’t the most well-ventilated environments, nor are the surfaces the cleanest. If you do go to a bar, the smaller the better.
  • Big concerts and sports stadiums: The virus spreads quickly when people are talking loudly or singing, and concert goers are often packed in tight and drinking alcohol.
  • Gyms: People are breathing heavily and wearing a mask is hard to do while exercising. The experts especially recommended avoiding enclosed classes.
  • Amusement parks: The experts didn’t give clear reasons, but big crowds and lots of screaming are likely culprits. There are also a lot of commonly touched surfaces on rides, so this could be a factor.
  • Churches: There have been many COVID-19 outbreaks in churches. People are packed close together indoors and often singing.
  • Buffets: People crowd around buffet tables and share serving utensils.
  • Basketball: While usually played outdoors, basketball is a contact sport with lots of heavy breathing.
  • Public pools: Big crowds abound, and wearing a mask is impossible. We’d add that fecal transmission is still a worry in this context, though the chlorine should mitigate this somewhat.
  • Schools: Public schools are a breeding ground of disease in the best of times. Kids are gross and don’t follow commands well.

Medium risk activities

These are activities that the experts said are less of a risk than the above:

  • Casinos: An indoor activity with big crowds, alcohol, and loud talking. We can add that a big mitigating factor is that casinos have some of the highest quality HVAC systems in the world. They are extremely well ventilated because of all the smoking, so they may be one of the safest crowded indoor environments.
  • Restaurants: Indoor dining is especially risky due to air recirculating in the HVAC system.
  • Playgrounds: While playgrounds are outdoors, kids are little germ factories, and there are many common surfaces to touch (e.g. monkey bars). There’s also a lot of yelling and exertion.
  • Hair salons: Professional haircuts mean close contact. It’s even worse if your barber or stylist uses a hair dryer.
  • Pontoon boats: Safe to do with your housemates, but you don’t want to be crammed on a tiny boat with strangers.
  • Movie theaters: Big crowds breathing each others’ recirculated air.
  • At home dinner parties: Crowd size is limited, but you’re close together.
  • Airplanes: The experts had a lot of disagreement about the safety of airplanes, so it sort of averages out to medium risk. We would avoid them.
  • Backyard barbecues: The experts rated this medium risk because it’s an outdoor activity, but said it’s low risk if everyone wears a mask. But how would anyone eat with a mask on? Especially ribs?
  • Malls: The experts said malls can be high risk if no precautions are taken but low risk if people distance and wear masks.
  • Beaches: Again, this one depends. If the beach isn’t crowded and people maintain distance, it’s low risk. Otherwise, it could be high risk.
  • Bowling: This is another ranking that’s a bit suspect. The experts gave the caveat that bowling’s rank depended on thorough surface disinfection, mask wearing, and leaving every other lane open. Have they even been to a bowling alley?

Low risk activities

Finally, we have a list of activities that the experts classified as fairly low risk:

  • Dentists: This is another area with a lot of expert disagreement, so take with a grain of salt. Dentists will likely be more much aware of sanitization, but dentistry is also more intimate than a haircut.
  • Walking in a busy downtown: Fairly safe as long as you avoid crowds.
  • Offices: Not as safe as working from home, but at least employers can strictly enforce COVID-19 precautions.
  • Doctor’s offices: Many doctors are taking extra precautions in their waiting rooms.
  • Buying groceries: Many grocery stores are taking precautions, but the experts cautioned that buying groceries is only low risk if everyone is wearing a mask.
  • Camping: Assuming you’re camping with people you live with.
  • Hotels: The experts said the biggest risks are wherever people congregate, like the check-in desk, and that the room itself is fairly low risk. However, we have smelled cigarette smoke from adjacent hotel rooms before, so we have our questions about the HVAC issues and airborne transmission. We would also hose down the room with disinfectant. But really, forget about the hotel and rent an AirBnB in a detached unit if you can afford it.
  • Golf: It’s outdoors, non-contact, and there’s no reason to get close to one another.
  • Libraries and museums: They don’t tend to be crowded, librarians are sticklers for rules, and NO TALKING.
  • Going for a walk, run, or bike ride: As long as you steer clear of other people, especially if unmasked.
  • Getting gas: Again, as long as you stay away from others and disinfect your hands. Be sure to pay at the pump. (Read our tips for getting gas safely.)
  • Getting takeout: The experts ranked this as low risk, but with the assumption that restaurants are taking precautions like curbside pickup and contactless payments. But in some areas of the country, you have to go inside to get your food and breathe in the same air as indoor diners. (Read our tips for getting takeout safely.)
  • Playing tennis: There aren’t many people who share a court at a time and there’s a great deal of distance between them. However, it could be an issue if a dirty hand infects a tennis ball. We would at least disinfect our hands frequently.

Do you agree with the experts’ rankings? What activities are you participating in, and what precautions are you taking? Let us know in the comments.

More of our reporting on doing common activities while avoiding COVID-19:


    • Haus Monkey

      This is really interesting. Our state has mandated face coverings to be worn inside businesses but I already saw people either not wearing the masks correctly (i.e. under the nose), or even just on their chin. I’m ok with food and grocery deliveries (but I disinfect all the packages anyway), occasional drive thru, or pick up something quickly inside a store, but I still can’t put myself to go to the mall, or a restaurant or to a gym (even if they offer one-one classes).

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    • JohnM

      Very informative. I like the touch of levity in your lead photo and “pontoon boats.” Watch out for those pontoon bridges, too.

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