A person wearing mask leaving home to illustrate going out safely during the pandemic
Illustration: Federico Gastaldi

Months into the pandemic, it can feel like our isolated lifestyle may never end. If you’re yearning to go out and do, well, something you haven’t done in a while, should you?

Certainly, important medical appoint­ments and surgeries—where the potential risks of letting health problems go untreated are greater than the threat of COVID-19—may need to proceed, says George Abraham, MD, chair of the infec­tious disease board at the American Board of Internal Medicine.

With less essential activities, such as getting your hair cut, it’s a much grayer area. “In these situations, it comes down to the prevalence rates of COVID-19 in your community,” Abraham says. Most infectious disease specialists consider a low level of new daily cases (fewer than 10 per 100,000 people) and a positive COVID-19 rate of under 2 percent fairly safe, he says.

More on COVID-19

Even with low prevalence rates, if you’re at higher risk for severe COVID-19—as are older adults and those with medical conditions such as diabetes, respiratory disease, and heart disease—you’ll want to be especially careful about activities that could expose you to the virus.

Consider, too, how comfortable you feel about being out in public places. “Us ­seniors have to make a hard decision about our risk tolerance levels, and that’s going to differ among individuals, just as it does in younger adults,” says Leo Cooney Jr., MD, professor emeritus at Yale Medical School in New Haven, Conn. Here’s how to weigh the risks and benefits of venturing out during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Indoor Gatherings With Friends

If you’re planning to see friends, consider this: “Meeting people indoors is much riskier, and we worry that when the humidity drops during the cold winter months, there will be less moisture in air droplets, which makes them lighter and much more likely to stay airborne,” says Christine Kistler, MD, an associate professor in the division of geriatric medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill. So bundling up for an outdoor walk together may be a better choice.

If you decide on an indoor visit, open the windows and wear goggles or a face shield along with a mask. “Masks don’t protect the mucosal lining of your eyes,” Kistler says. Indoor interactions should be less than 30 minutes (ideally, 15 minutes), and people should stay at least 6 feet apart. 

Seeing Your Grandkids

Rumor may have it that kids don’t transmit COVID-19, but a July report in JAMA Pediatrics online found that children younger than 5 can carry as much COVID-19 in the upper part of their throats as older kids and adults, which means they may be able to spread the illness just as easily, even if they have no symptoms.

On the other hand, there are emotional risks and benefits to consider. “We know that rates of depression have tripled since the start of the pandemic, and social isolation is one of the worst things for the mental health of older adults,” says ­Michael Hochman, MD, director of the Gehr Family Center for Health Systems Science and Innovation at Keck Medicine of USC in California.

He recommends seeing grandchildren, but only outdoors, with both of you masked and, generally, staying at least 6 feet apart. (Very small children can give you a quick hug around your legs.)

“Many kids now, even if they’re not back in school, are seeing friends or ­doing activities such as sports, so they’re inherently at higher risk,” says Donald Ford, MD, a family physician at the Cleveland Clinic. 

Beauty Salon or Barbershop

“Since there’s no way to safely distance from your stylist, as well, it carries more risk” than a medical appointment, Abraham says. Still, if COVID-19 numbers in your area are low and you take precautions, you should be reasonably safe.

Before you go, ask about safety protocols. Management should have you sit in your car until the stylist is ready, and client chairs should be at least 6 feet apart. Stylists’ areas and tools should be disinfected after every appointment.

In the salon, you and your stylist should both wear masks. Aim to keep your appointment to 30 minutes or less, Abraham adds, so choose a simple style and consider forgoing lengthy coloring services, such as highlights.

You may want to show up with freshly washed hair and skip blow drying, which can spread airborne respiratory droplets—like those that may carry the coronavirus.

Read a book, rather than chatting with your stylist. “Talking expels more droplets, and if you’re speaking more loudly to be heard over salon noise, droplets can travel further,” Abraham says. 

Places of Worship

Houses of worship have been potent COVID-19 spreaders. A May study in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which followed 92 attendees of an Arkansas church for a week, found that almost 40 percent developed COVID-19—half the cases in people older than 65. “COVID-19 spreads easily in indoor large gatherings, and religious events are no exception,” Ford says. “People are often sitting less than 6 feet apart, and if they’re singing, the virus can spread even more.” A Centers for Disease Con­trol and Prevention report found that a choir practice in Washington infected 86 percent of members.

For most seniors, virtual services are safest, Ford says. Outdoor services are also low-risk if congregants are masked and spaced 6 feet apart, and there’s no singing. If you feel strongly about an ­indoor service and your area has low COVID-­19 numbers, make sure that no more than 30 to 40 people will attend and that there will be no singing, and stay masked and seated at least 6 feet away from those outside your household, Cooney says. 

Taking a Vacation

If you need to get away, do it with precautions, Cooney says. Choose an uncrowded place in an area with low COVID-19 levels. It should be within several hours’ drive of your home, so you don’t have to fly or take a train or bus to get there or stay overnight en route.

With flying, for instance, “It’s not just sitting in an airplane—it’s going through the airport and security, which are places where you can easily be exposed to COVID-19,” Cooney says. No matter how you travel, rent a house rather than staying at a hotel or with friends, and cook your own meals or opt for takeout. 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the December 2020 issue of Consumer Reports On Health