4 questions to consider before socializing outdoors as COVID-19 variants spread


  • It’s possible to socialize safely outdoors, but no interaction is risk-free.
  • Semi-outdoor settings, like restaurant tents, are riskier than open-air spaces.
  • A prolonged, close conversation can pose some risk even if you’re outside.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Public health experts have encouraged increased caution as at least four new variants of the coronavirus have spread around the world, but going outside is still a safe social option if done carefully.


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Some of the burgeoning strains are more transmissible, while others might be able to evade the defenses built up by existing vaccines. As the virus continues to spread, it’s more important than ever to wear a face mask (or two), practice good hand hygiene, and physically distance yourself from others.

However, it’s not realistic to ask people to refrain from socializing completely, especially at a time when many have been isolated for nearly a year, virologist Muge Cevik tweeted this month. 

Read more: Should you wear a face mask while you jog? It depends.

The risk of transmitting the coronavirus indoors is up to 20 times greater than it is outdoors, Cevik wrote, citing a study published before the recent variants were known.

Insider spoke with Cevik about how to evaluate the risk of socializing, dining, and getting around outdoors. She said there are four dimensions of risk to consider – environment, activity, time, and distance. These are the questions to ask yourself before socializing outdoors as variants spread.

Are you really outdoors?

The definition of “outdoors” has been stretched this winter, at times beyond recognition. As restaurants installed tents, igloos, and other sidewalk dining structures, diners were faced with a choice between comfort and COVID safety.

Cevik said three sides of such a structure (which can include the ceiling) should be open for proper ventilation. Otherwise, it’s not really outdoors, and congregating there comes with a higher level of risk.

In New York City, half of the side walls of a tent must remain open for it to be considered an outdoor dining space, Insider’s Hilary Brueck previously reported. More enclosed spaces must limit their seating capacity to 25%, putting them in the same risk category as indoor dining.

What are you doing?

Although outdoor settings come with a lower transmission risk than indoor spaces, no interaction is risk-free. Cevik said to consider risk as a multi-dimensional spectrum rather than a yes-or-no question.

“Higher risk would be, you’re in an indoor place, poorly ventilated, it’s packed with people,” Cevik told Insider. “And the lowest risk would be walking on the street with no face-to-face contact.”

Read more: A 30-minute conversation may be one of the riskiest COVID-19 activities. Here’s why quiet is a key virus-fighting strategy.

Somewhere in between is eating and drinking in a semi-outdoor space, Cevik said. Even though you might feel more comfortable dining in a tent with friends than walking down a crowded city street, the closer interaction is likely more risky – especially if you’re drinking alcohol, or dining with people outside of your social bubble.

How long will you be doing it?

The risk level of an outdoor interaction also depends on its duration, or how long you’re doing it. That’s why passing a jogger on the street is relatively low-risk: you’re only breathing that person’s air for a brief moment in time (and hopefully you’re both wearing masks).

Meals shared outdoors rank relatively high on the risk spectrum. If you’re spending an hour or two in close proximity to someone, you’re going to share some air.

Read more: You’re less likely to catch the coronavirus outdoors, but the amount of time you spend near other people matters most

How close are you getting to others?

Finally, the risk level of your interaction is largely determined by how close you get to your outdoor companions.

“Close interactions outdoors, for example, especially in a semi-outdoor space. can still pose a risk, but it’s probably lower than the indoor setting,” Cevik told Insider.

Cevik defined a close interaction as a face-to-face conversation where you’re less than six feet apart, so those unmasked but somewhat distanced chats with your neighbors may be a bit riskier than you think.

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