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How to weigh the risk of going out in the coronavirus pandemic, in one chart

There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about going out during a pandemic. Here’s how to think about the risk.

Illustration showing low risk to high risk socializing. Amanda Northrop/Vox

Since coronavirus lockdowns began in the US, most Americans have drastically changed their patterns: following instructions to stay home, limiting almost all contact with others, and venturing out only for essential trips and exercise.

As states have eased social distancing restrictions, and with the July Fourth weekend approaching, people are beginning to have more options. Between those wanting to patronize newly reopened businesses or socialize in person, and more employers calling people back to work, survey and cellphone data suggests people are already starting to trickle out of their homes.

But for many people, it’s really not clear which kinds of gatherings are safe and which aren’t. And that uncertainty can spark anxiety.

Fortunately, health experts know more about the coronavirus than they did when the lockdowns began, and they can point us to different levels of risk as we begin to reengage. There’s also advice on how to minimize harm.

“There’s been a polarization between two purported options of staying home indefinitely … versus going back to business as usual,” Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard, told me. “The idea of harm reduction gives us a way of thinking about risk as a continuum and thinking about the middle ground between those two options.”

Marcus and Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray created an infographic showing the different scales of risk. We at Vox were inspired by it and, with Marcus and Murray’s permission, adapted it:

Table showing how different places present more risks during the coronavirus pandemic: Your home is the safest place. Outdoor environments present moderate and higher risk. Indoor spaces with people you don’t live with present the highest risk. Amanda Northrop/Vox

“A lot of people, when they hear that you can’t completely get rid of your risk, they think, ‘Well, that means that it’s inevitable, and I’ll just go and do everything that I was normally doing before, and if I get sick, I get sick,’” Murray told me. “But there are lots of things you can do in between nothing and everything.”

First and foremost, the advice that has been repeated for much of the past few months remains true: Your home is still the safest place to be during this pandemic. You should continue trying to stay home as much as possible, because the virus is still circulating at a very high rate in many communities. (If you want to be extra careful, some resources, like Covid Act Now, help show how much transmission there is in your area.)

But whether you need to for work or you’re simply tired of looking at your home’s walls, there are ways to mitigate risk when you go out.

For one, outdoors is generally safer, thanks to the open air — where the virus can more easily disperse — and, potentially, the warm, sunny weather. As Duke health policy expert Mark McClellan told me, “It’s a good year for outdoor dining and outdoor shopping and outdoor all kinds of activities.”

It also matters who you’re hanging out with. It’s okay to closely interact with people you live with (unless one of you gets sick; then whoever’s sick should isolate). But you should try to keep your distance from people you don’t live with. And you should try to avoid interacting with too many people at once; even if it’s theoretically possible to keep 6 feet from others in a crowded space, it’s still better to avoid it. That’s true for the outdoors, but it’s especially true for the indoors.

When you go out, also take the now-familiar precautions: Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Wear a mask, particularly in indoor public spaces. Avoid shared surfaces and crowded settings, and keep physical distance — at least 6 feet — from people you don’t live with. If you’re 65 or older or have chronic health conditions that could exacerbate Covid-19, you should take all of this advice more seriously.

Separately, experts say it’s a good idea to space out trips outside your home as much as possible — ideally, by two weeks, to match the virus’s incubation period. You could also establish a “closed circle” with people you want to regularly interact with, in which both sides agree to minimize contact with anyone else (although some experts are skeptical of this idea).

With these tips, you can’t completely eliminate the risk of leaving your home. But you can greatly reduce that risk. For some, that could make the prospects of going out — with the benefits that going out can entail for your physical and mental health — much more feasible.

It all begins, though, with the understanding that risk during the coronavirus pandemic is really a spectrum, not a black-and-white choice.

“People will take risks, whether we like it or not,” Marcus said. “The best thing we can do is give them strategies to reduce harm in those situations. If we don’t do that, we’re missing an opportunity.”

For more detailed tips for going out and the explanations for them, read Vox’s full explainer.