6 Places You’re Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus

Life isn't back to normal just yet. As the Delta variant continues to spread, experts recommend being particularly cautious at these hot spots for infection.

Just when you thought it was safe to forgo your mask and start getting back to normal, COVID-19 rates are once again on the rise and hospitals are starting to fill up as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads across the country. The Delta variant is more than two times as contagious as previous variants, according to the CDC, and data suggests that the unvaccinated are at particularly high risk for severe infection and hospitalization from this strain, although breakthrough infections can and do occur among the fully vaccinated.

“COVID-19 is spread by respiratory droplets in the air, but Delta doesn’t require as many droplets to spread, so it is more airborne,” explains Len Horovitz, MD, a pulmonary specialist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. This is why the CDC recommends sporting masks in public indoor places, even if you are fully vaccinated, and to get vaccinated as soon as you are able. To that end, if you still need to get your jab, it’s now as simple as going to Walmart, CVS, Kroger, or Costco.

And, of course, some places are riskier than others to visit. In general, infection hot spots tend to be “indoor environments with limited fresh airflow, where large numbers of people can gather for longer than 10 minutes of interactions and where it is difficult to maintain physical distancing,” according to Boris Lushniak, MD, Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health in Baltimore. When planning your future public outings, consider avoiding these everyday places where experts say infection rates remain the highest.

Bars and restaurants

The number one hot spot for coronavirus infections is the bar and restaurant scene, according to Dr. Lushniak. “Unfortunately, as bars have reopened, we have seen a large number of young people gathering but not necessarily being wary that COVID-19 is still a problem,” he says. The data backs him up: A study in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have dined at a restaurant as those who tested negative.

Even bars and restaurants that limit capacity and space tables six feet apart are high-risk environments, Dr. Lushniak says. At bars, in particular, people gather as they wait in line to get in, and most don’t wear masks or socially distance. Inside, people spend hours in a small, poorly ventilated space while dancing, eating, sitting or standing close together, and talking over the music. Loud conversations at bars can release up to 10 times as many respiratory droplets as a cough, research shows. And those ubiquitous plastic screens between tables aren’t really much help, according to research from the Environmental Modelling Group. Unless the screens are specifically designed to work with airflow, they likely won’t reduce exposure to smaller aerosol particles that can easily travel around a screen.

At any indoor spot, Dr. Lushniak suggests taking stock of what public health recommendations are being followed. Ask yourself, “Are people wearing masks? Is the six-foot rule being applied? Is it crowded with people?” he says. It’s best to remove yourself from any situation that doesn’t abide by expert-approved safeguards. Experts also recommend following these guidelines when dining at restaurants.

Bars and restaurants could lose their not-so-desirable top spot on this list if they check for vaccination status among patrons, says Dr. Horovitz. “Restaurants will definitely be safer if all staff and patrons are required to show proof of vaccination, as is the case in New York City and many other cities,” he says. “[Regardless], you still should wear a mask until you sit down at the table.”

Gyms and fitness centers

Masked Athlete Doing 2-Kettlebell Front Squat in GymAzmanL/Getty Images

Gyms and fitness centers are certainly still hot spots, says Dr. Horovitz. Experts point to insufficient ventilation, large class sizes, and intensity of the workouts as the reason for the high infection rates here. In two reports by the CDC, scientists linked dozens of COVID-19 cases to two gyms in Chicago and Hawaii. Fifty-five gym members were infected in Chicago and 21 were infected in Hawaii after attending fitness classes with a contagious person who did not show symptoms. While both fitness centers followed protocols such as limiting class sizes and screening for symptoms of COVID-19, neither required members to wear masks while exercising. Masks have been shown to limit the spread of COVID-19, even among those who don’t seem sick.

If you decide to exercise indoors, choose your gym wisely. The CDC recommends using a facility that opens doors and windows for ventilation, installs barriers between equipment for social distancing, and requires its staff and guests to wear masks. “These practices show we care about our own health but also the health of those around us,” Dr. Lushniak says. “This is the right thing to do and is part of the weaponry to battle the pandemic.”

Many gyms are considering requiring proof of vaccination and masks for all members in light of the highly transmissible Delta variant, Dr. Horovitz says. “This will make gyms safer.”

Transportation

Traveling—especially on cruises and airplanes—can increase your risk of getting and spreading COVID-19, according to the CDC. Recently, there were 27 cases of COVID-19 on a Carnival cruise ship that sailed from Galveston, Texas, to Belize, and the CDC just changed its recommendations for “cruisers,” suggesting that those who are at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19 avoid cruise ships, regardless of vaccination status. This includes older adults, people with certain medical conditions, and pregnant and recently pregnant people. Before the new announcement, the CDC recommended that only people who were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 avoid cruise ships.

Masks will still be required on airplanes, trains, and buses (as well as at airports and train stations) through January 18, 2022, according to the National Transportation Authority. Aside from adhering to mask mandates, the CDC also now recommends that domestic travelers delay travel until they are fully vaccinated, as well as get tested one to three days before the trip and again three to five days after travel. It’s also important to stay home and self-quarantine for a full seven days after travel, even if you test negative, the CDC states.

As far as school buses, there’s some good news for parents. The risk of acquiring COVID-19 on the school bus is very low when proper precautions are taken, including open windows, mandated masking, and two kids per seat. According to a study of a Virginia-area private school published in the Journal of School Health, when these precautions were followed, there was no transmission of COVID-19 linked to busing even during the height of the pandemic.

Crowded beaches and pools

Crowded Santa Monica BeachRebecca Emery/Getty Images

Reminder: Just because you’re outside, it doesn’t mean you’re safe. Coronavirus infection rates at beaches surged last year as the weather warmed up and beachgoers hit the waves. In July, there was an outbreak in the Cape Cod resort town of Provincetown, where a total of 469 people developed COVID-19—three-quarters of whom had gotten their COVID vaccinations.

Luckily, beaches allow more airflow than indoor environments, and there is little evidence that the virus can spread to people through water. But experts believe that viral particles can still travel from an infected person to others nearby, especially in places where people linger for hours at a time. This is why the CDC recommends wearing a mask and avoiding crowded areas where you can’t stay six feet apart from other beachgoers.

Public pools may also be more problematic than you realize, says Dr. Horovitz. “When you are swimming, you are often breathing heavily, and your risk of catching COVID-19 depends on how close you are to someone who is not vaccinated,” he explains, noting that many of those in public pools are kids under 12 who can’t get vaccinated yet.

Sporting events, festivals, and religious services

Sports fans might still be safer watching the big game from their couches this year, although a recent study found that limiting the number of people in the stands can keep the risk of COVID-19 transmission low. According to a study in JAMA Network Open, 528 NFL and NCAA football games that had limited in-person attendance during the 2020–21 season weren’t linked to increased COVID-19 cases in the community.

Similar to the situation with beaches and pools, outdoor sporting arenas are believed to be safer than indoor ones. Yet even outdoors, fans often yell, chant, and sing, sit close together, travel from outside the area, and share food and personal items like noisemakers with others—all risk factors for spreading COVID-19. The same can be said about places of religious worship where there is singing and praying, Dr. Horovitz notes, though there may be increased risks since services are usually held indoors. Big music festivals also pose some risk, but if there’s a vaccination requirement in place, this risk is much lower.

With the exception of religious services, most events are broadcast live, but those attending in person should not hesitate to ask about the property’s cleaning and disinfection protocols, according to Dr. Lushniak. “All this is about your personal and your family’s health,” he says. Here’s what people who’ve been infected with coronavirus want you to know.

Indoor social gatherings

Gathering with unvaccinated friends and family who do not live with you is still discouraged by the CDC, especially if you’re indoors. Because COVID-19 is spread through tiny droplets in the air, simply being in close contact with a contagious person could increase your risk of infection, even if they don’t show symptoms. Ideally, gatherings should be held outdoors or in a well-ventilated space, according to the CDC. Spacing tables and chairs six feet apart, planning social-distancing-friendly activities, wearing face masks, and washing hands frequently can further help to protect guests from infection.

And, of course, if you are feeling sick or have been exposed to COVID-19 in the past 14 days, it’s best to skip social gatherings altogether. That’s true regardless of your vaccination status since breakthrough infections can occur among people who are fully vaccinated. The bottom line? “Any place that is crowded where people are not wearing masks is still a hot spot,” Dr. Horovitz says. And that includes your home. “Physical distancing, mask-wearing, and frequent handwashing need to become part of our culture for the near future,” Dr. Lushniak adds. Find out more about the everyday habits that could (and should) change in a post-coronavirus world.

Sources:

  • CDC: “Delta Variant: What We Know About the Science”
  • Len Horovitz, MD, pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital New York City
  • Boris Lushniak, MD, Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health
  • CDC: “Community and Close Contact Exposures Associated with COVID-19 Among Symptomatic Adults ≥18 Years in 11 Outpatient Health Care Facilities — United States, July 2020”
  • Environmental Modelling Group: “Role of screens and barriers in mitigating COVID-19 transmission.”
  • CDC: “COVID-19 Outbreak Among Attendees of an Exercise Facility — Chicago, Illinois, August-September 2020”
  • CDC: “Community Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at Three Fitness Facilities — Hawaii, June-July 2020”
  • Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “Infection risk in gyms during physical exercise”
  • Journal of School Health: “COVID-19 Transmission during Transportation of 1st to 12th Grade Students: Experience of an Independent School in Virginia”
  • CDC: “Outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 Infections, Including COVID-19 Vaccine Breakthrough Infections, Associated with Large Public Gatherings — Barnstable County, Massachusetts, July 2021”
  • JAMA Network Open: “Association of Limited In-Person Attendance in US National Football League and National Collegiate Athletic Association Games With County-Level COVID-19 Cases”

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer in New York. Her articles regularly appear in WebMD, Healthday.com, Beautyinthebag.com and other consumer health portals.