How risky is it to shop at the mall, and other holiday safety questions answered by a critical care doctor

To stay safer this holiday season, "limit the people, limit the time."


Infection rates continue to climb as we head into the most social months of the year. Just one week before Thanksgiving, the United States experienced the worst day of the pandemic with 187,833 cases reported, according to CNBC.

November and December are usually popular months for lots of travel and shopping, along with large celebrations with families and friends. This year, however, experts warn that many traditional holiday season activities aren't wise, especially those that are indoors or involve crowds.

The first consideration when deciding how to be around other people should be state or local guidance, says Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "The number one guidance should be what the state is doing," he says. "If the state is saying, 'Don't do gatherings,' then don't do them."

Another cardinal rule, he says, is "limit the people, limit the time." This applies to whatever activity you're doing, whether it be going to church or shopping on Black Friday.

Because Covid-19 spreads through airborne particles, limiting who you are around and for how long can better reduce the risk of contracting the virus than obsessively disinfecting your hands and surfaces. "Covid's contagiousness on surfaces is limited to a couple hours," he says. "The contagious ability of the viruses greatly gets extinguished after two or three hours."

With that in mind, here's his advice for assessing the risk of different winter activities.

Can I shop at the mall?

Holiday shopping will look different this year. The Centers for Disease Control recommends shoppers don't visit packed malls or stand in long lines. To eliminate the frenzy that usually takes place on Thanksgiving night, many retailers are opting to stay closed on Thanksgiving, while some malls are limiting capacity and reducing hours.

And retailers have been offering online deals all month to curb shoppers' need to go into physical stores.

If you must go to the mall, Galiatsatos says, treat it like a quick grocery run. "To get truly infected you need to spend at least 10 to 15 minutes with someone infected," he says, or to spend one minute with 15 infected people. Wearing a mask and shopping quickly can reduce your risk.

Is hosting a small indoor gathering unsafe?

Public health officials have warned that even small, private social gatherings are fueling the spread of coronavirus.

"The best way to not spread coronavirus in an indoor setting is to not bring coronavirus in an indoor setting," Galiatsatos says. "Superspreading events have been identified in these public gatherings like indoor dining and small gatherings of families."

Superspreading events have been identified in these public gatherings like indoor dining and small gatherings of families.
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos
pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center

Talk to the people you want to invite over about who they have been seeing, whether they have been going to large gatherings, and how often they wear a mask in public. Every extra person in your home increases the chance of infection.

Think about it like a diagram, Galiatsatos recommends, and start with yourself. If you're interacting with three people a day, you are bringing that risk to a gathering. Say you invite five people to your home. Assuming they are only interacting with three people a day, the diagram of who has been in contact with who is already sprawling.

What about a small outdoor gathering?

One of the main benefits to being outdoors is that you have more space to distance.

Laura Sampson, founder of the blog Little House Big Alaska, recently hosted a small outdoor gathering for her son's 17th birthday. "We basically did a 'bring-your-own-dinner' party," she told Grow. "Everyone brings their own food and we put a grill across the whole top of the fire pit and grill it all separately." 

The best way to not spread coronavirus in an indoor setting is to not bring coronavirus in an indoor setting.
Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos
pulmonary and critical care medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center

Gatherings like this, where a small group of people eats the food they brought, stays 6 feet apart, and wears masks, can be low risk. But don't get too comfortable, Galiatsatos warns. "People get a false sense of security" outdoors, he says. "Don't sacrifice those other measures of physically distancing and face- masking."

Even during the summer, some beaches proved to be Covid-19 hot spots, Dr. Nathan Grubaugh, an epidemiologist at Yale, told Grow. Still, Grubaugh said, "Things that are outside are better than things that are inside."

Galiatsatos agrees that a backyard is safer than a dining room: "Six feet away outdoors is better than 6 feet away indoors."

Can I stay in a hotel or Airbnb?

"I haven't seen hotels serve as a superspreader," Galiatsatos says. Same goes for Airbnb. Wear a mask if you must interact with someone during check-in and limit who is in your room.

Seeing as surfaces are less of a concern than airborne particles when it comes to spread, a hotel room or Airbnb can be low risk if it's only you or those you've been quarantining with staying there.

"It's more about how you're spending your time," Grubaugh told Grow. Always wear a mask when you're in shared spaces, like the hotel lobby, and don't linger.

Is it safe to go to church?

Church gatherings or worship ceremonies are potentially high risk, Galiatsatos says.

"Praying and singing are part of the congregations, but those are vocal maneuvers that really project droplets pretty far, well beyond 6 feet," he says. "Congregations have to be distanced 20-plus feet away."

No matter the activity, remember to follow state guidelines and truly consider whether the activity is worth putting you or someone you know at risk. "It just goes back to recognizing that, regardless of how you spin the title of what you're doing, it's still social gatherings," Galiatsatos says.

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