What to know if you're attending a concert, taking public transport, visiting a theme park, or simply going to Starbucks.

By Jessica Migala
Updated March 08, 2020

Up until a few weeks ago, you probably didn’t hesitate when booking that flight, attending a conference, riding the subway, or swinging by your local coffee shop before work. But with the spread of the new strain of the coronavirus and outbreaks of the respiratory disease it causes — COVID-19 — you might be rethinking whether you should go out in a crowd at all.

Other people are thinking the same thing, as there has been a major effort to reduce mass gatherings. Some health care organizations have canceled their annual conferences, which typically bring in people from around the world. SXSW also canceled their film and music festival, which was scheduled to start at the end of this week. Shanghai Disney Resort and Tokyo Disneyland closed, and Paris’ Louvre temporarily shuttered for three days. Meanwhile, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi said he would not participate in this year's Holi festival, the BNP Paribas Open dropped their tennis tournament, Dublin and Boston both canceled their St. Patrick's Day parades, and the NBA suspended its season.

Even smaller gatherings are affected: Starbucks announced that, at least temporarily, it won’t fill personal cups and “for here” mugs, and will only serve drinks in disposable cups in the U.S. and Canada, in order to do their part to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, the company announced last week.

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Life doesn’t have to stop because of the coronavirus, but it’s still smart to reevaluate your priorities. “It’s important to remain cautious and determine if it’s absolutely necessary to attend large gatherings and public events because of recent elevated concerns,” says Dr. Adam Treitman, section head of infectious disease and medical director of infection control at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois.

Let your health help guide your decision to go or stay. “If you are part of an at-risk group, such as if you are immunocompromised or have a chronic health condition, it’s reasonable to rethink going out in large crowds,” says Dr. Kristin Englund, a staff member in the department of infectious disease at the Cleveland Clinic. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests these groups “avoid crowds as much as possible” and stay away from people who are sick when out in public.

If you are a generally heathy middle-aged or young adult, your risk of developing serious complications from the illness is low. Still, it’s worth asking yourself if you’re traveling and flights are canceled, or you have to quarantine, what impact that would have on your job and family. “There’s no one answer to say go or don’t go. People need to make their own personal judgments based on their health status and life circumstances,” says Dr. Englund.

If you decide to go — whether your destination is a festival, concert, coffee shop, fast-food restaurant, or conference — here’s what you need to know to reduce your risk of catching anything, including the coronavirus.

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1. Avoid close contact at family reunions, birthday parties, or other celebrations.

Reconsider kissing relatives on the cheek to say hello, suggests Dr. Englund. Viruses like the coronavirus can be spread by close contact, which is considered anything in the range of six feet. This doesn’t mean you have to keep your distance from everyone — that would be nearly impossible in a situation with loved ones — but rethink the habits that increase the risk of spread, including kissing.

2. When riding public transportation, keep your distance from sneezers.

Some cities are making an effort to keep their public transportation clean. For instance, New York City’s MTA will disinfect certain areas, including turnstiles and handrails, daily, and will sanitize subway trains and buses every three days. That’s great news, but you’ll have to do more. Common advice is to avoid sick people, but you can’t always do that when you’re in close quarters on public transport — and you still have to get to work. If there’s someone coughing or sneezing within six feet of you, it’s a good idea to turn yourself away from them or even remind them to cough into their elbow if they’re not covering up appropriately, says Dr. Englund. That said, if the person coughing is across the car (more than six feet away), you do not have to get off — they’re far enough that you don’t have to worry, she says.

3. When visiting a fast-food restaurant or coffee shop, wash before you eat.

In public places, there are “high-touch areas,” which are basically the things that everyone puts their hands on, like door handles, railings, self-order kiosks, and the credit card reader. If someone has a virus on their hands, they can deposit it on these surfaces, which you can then get on your hands. Wash or sanitize your hands before eating or touching your face. “You don’t want to take those germs that can stay on objects for several hours up to your nose, eyes, or mouth,” says Dr. Englund. Most of us don’t wash correctly. You’ll have to use both soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds, says Dr. Treitman. “Sing ‘Happy Birthday’ twice,” he says. If using hand sanitizer, choose one with at least 60 percent alcohol.

4. If taking an airplane, skip the mask.

Many people may want to wear a surgical mask, especially when traveling. “It’s not recommended to wear surgical face masks because they do not prevent you from getting sick,” says Dr. Treitman. What’s more, they could theoretically contribute to you catching something: “Wearing face masks could increase your chances of getting sick because we naturally touch our face when something is on it,” he adds.

5. If you have concert or festival tickets, and are sick, stay home.

This is sage advice during cold and flu season as well. Your threshold for staying home and avoiding others should be low, suggests Dr. Treitman. Because it’s not just you who’s affected in all of this, but it’s other people — the elderly, those with underlying medical problems — that you should look out for, too.

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