At this point in the pandemic, with the omicron variant and its subvariants dominating the number of COVID-19 cases, you may be wondering how you can safely go to restaurants, bars, concerts and other places where you'll be in close proximity to lots of people.
Besides being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the best way to prevent infection has not changed much since 2020.
“Wearing masks is still one of the top methods that we're calling for, for mitigation, especially that's within your individual control," said Kelly Reynolds, a professor and the chair of the Department of Community, Environment and Policy as well as the director of the Environment, Exposure Science and Risk Assessment Center at the University of Arizona.
"You don't have as much control about HVAC systems and ventilation rates when you're in public spaces, but you certainly can protect yourself and protect others by wearing masks."
Here is the latest guidance about the omicron variant — and its BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants — and whether it's safe to do some of your favorite activities.
Arizona COVID-19 update: Cases increase by 15,034, with 74 new known deaths
How common is the omicron BA.5 subvariant in Arizona?
COVID-19 case numbers are not as high as during last winter's omicron surge, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, but they have been gradually rising since the week of April 10.
New COVID-19 cases have hovered above 15,000 each week since May 29, recently peaking at 18,487 during the week of July 10.
These numbers do not reflect people all people who take at-home tests or do not test at all.
The majority of positive cases are attributed to the BA.5 omicron subvariant, which is now the dominant variant. According to the Arizona COVID-19 Sequencing Dashboard, 74% of the sequenced genomes for positive cases were of the BA.5 lineage in July, compared to almost 26% in June.
According to ADHS’ July 13 blog post, “Evidence suggests that this version of the virus that causes COVID-19 (the omicron subvariant BA.5) is better at eluding immune protection offered by vaccination or previous infection.”
For subscribers: What to know about BA.4 and BA.5 in Arizona
What is the rate of spread of COVID-19 in Arizona?
Here's what Arizona Republic reporter Alison Steinbach wrote in an Aug. 4 article:
"Residents in five of Arizona’s 15 counties should be wearing face masks indoors in public because of COVID-19 levels, according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as of Thursday. Those counties were Mohave, Navajo, Apache, Yuma and La Paz.
"The CDC’s 'community level' guidance is updated weekly and ranks counties as low, medium and high, or green, yellow and orange. The six Arizona counties designated as 'medium' were Coconino, Gila, Graham, Cochise, Santa Cruz and Pima. Maricopa, Yavapai, Pinal and Greenlee were 'low' as of Thursday.
"The metrics are based on a county’s COVID-19 hospital bed use, COVID-19 hospital admissions and case rates for the virus over the past week."
Is it safe to eat in a restaurant now?
With most dining and drinking establishments no longer asking customers to mask up indoors, you'll have to do your own risk assessment.
“The safest measure is to not be around other people and not eat out. But obviously, we've all been through that for years now,” Reynolds said. “So I think just taking … precautions as much as possible to reduce your risk is really a smart thing to do.”
Some of the most important things diners can do include “keeping your distance, wearing your mask when possible and being in spaces where you have maximized air exchange rates — whether that be outside or near a window or in a facility that has an effective air filtration or circulation system,” according to Reynolds.
“It's all this scale of, you know, risk probability. So your risk is lower if you're outside and you have more natural air circulation. Your risk is lower if you can distance yourself from other people,” Reynolds said. “Your risk goes up as you come into more frequent contact with people and as you have less air volume in your immediate surroundings.”
Dining out and socializing responsibly also includes testing yourself for COVID-19. This can help prevent you from unknowingly spreading the virus.
How to eat in a restaurant safely
When deciding whether to go to a bar or restaurant, do your research. For example, you can call an establishment and ask what their mitigation measures are.
“Some of the questions I would ask (are): What are your air exchange protocols? What are your masking protocols? What are your distancing protocols? And then everyone can make kind of their own informed decisions,” Reynolds said.
Some places might emphasize their use of plexiglass barriers and hygiene, but those are not primary safety factors compared to distancing from others and having access to fresh air.
“I don't know that just a plexiglass barrier, you know, on one side of the booth is really going to have much of an impact. But it might be more about the distancing of people between tables because it's really movement through the air, which is how the virus is primarily spreading,” Reynolds said.
“We also find that surface disinfection is not having a major impact on SARS-CoV-2 transmission because, again, most of the transmission is through the air, and the virus doesn't survive very long once it settles on surfaces.”
Is it safer to eat outside?
For people who would like to dine out but find the Arizona heat unappealing, there might be a middle ground.
“I think having an option of eating outside or in an area where there is good … indoor-outdoor air exchange, where there might be some open window areas, but still having air conditioning available to you on the fringe of that indoor-outdoor environment, is probably the safest type of environment to eat out in,” Reynolds said.
Are concert venues safe now?
As of Aug. 2, no concert or event at the largest venues in metro Phoenix — State Farm Stadium, Chase Field, Footprint Center, Gila River Arena, Ak-Chin Pavilion and Phoenix Raceway — through 2022 requires vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
Masks are “strongly recommended” but not required at Gila River Arena.
But most larger venues have stopped recommending masks. Several have notes on their websites about how attending events involves an assumption of risk and the waiver of liability relating to COVID-19.
If you click on individual concerts at Ak-Chin Pavilion on Live Nation’s site, for example, most take you to a note that says "attendees are no longer required to provide proof of negative COVID-19 test AND/OR vaccination for entry into this event."
Most venues still have some COVID-19 protocols in place, however.
According to Gila River Arena’s website, ticketholders should not attend if they have COVID-19 symptoms or know they've been exposed, and physical distancing of at least 6 feet is encouraged “whenever possible.”
Tickets are paperless to allow touchless scanning at entry, and cash is no longer accepted for parking, concessions or merchandise. They’ve also done away with condiment dispensers.
At Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix, health and safety measures include paperless ticketing, cashless payment and Grab & Go concessions through the Suns app. Fans can also load cash onto prepaid cards at the box office.
A new HVAC system has been installed to improve air filtration and circulation. Escalator handrails have been equipped with UV-C technology that eliminates bacteria.
They’ve also upgraded to touchless restrooms with motion sensors on paper towel dispensers, sinks and toilets.
Is it safe to go to concerts now?
To Reynolds, whether someone feels safe going to a concert "really depends on your definition of safe."
On one hand, we've seen a dramatic reduction in number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths since January. But the omicron variant and subvariants are much more transmissible than delta.
"So there's always these kinds of trade-offs as the virus strains continue to mutate," Reynolds said.
"And we'll continue to see more variants mutating. So there's always that risk with being out and about that we could contract either the current variant or the next variant, which could be more severe illness."
James Hodge is the Peter Kiewit Foundation Professor of Law at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and Director of the Center for Public Health Law and Policy at Arizona State University.
“Let's be very clear that holding specific events, unmasked, unvaccinated, without any social distancing, basically, at work, is still very risky in the United States in specific settings where COVID continues to be prevalent in regards to spread,” Hodge says.
“So you're taking a risk. There's no question about that.”
'America was ready for metal.' How Judas Priest delivered with 'Screaming for Vengeance'
How can I attend concerts safely?
There are steps an individual can take to be safer when attending concerts and events.
“If you were to go to these events fully vaccinated, double boosted, you're going with the strongest potential immunity you can bring to an event of that nature,” Hodge said.
But that doesn't guarantee you won't get COVID-19.
“It just means it may have a fairly small effect on you,” Hodge said.
And you could spread it to others, even if you don't have symptoms.
“This is one thing about COVID that's been proven over and over again,” Hodge said. “It's stealthy. You don't know you have it, but you're spreading it. And consequently, events of this nature could easily qualify as superspreader events.”
Without vaccination or immunity from having been recently infected, Hodge said, “You are taking your chances and there's very likely a good shot you'll get COVID there.”
Hodge strongly recommends you wear a mask at large events.
“Even if the government is not requiring it, the setting is not requiring it, if you wear a mask, even at outdoor events, you do greatly diminish your chances of acquiring COVID,” he said.
“That's been the standard mantra all throughout this pandemic with the exception of the earliest couple of months where CDC and others were trying to determine if it was really an effective prevention method. It can still be used very effectively in all these settings to greatly eliminate potential risks of infection.“
Reynolds recommends testing before you go to any large event.
"It's kind of our social responsibility, I think, if you know you're going to be out in a large group of people or even a small dinner party, to test and just make sure at that moment, that you're not contagious to other people," she says.
"It doesn't really protect you, but it will protect the other people you might be around."
How Duane Eddy found his twangy sound in Phoenix. 'We need to cut an instrumental'
Is it safer to go to outdoor concerts?
The best mitigation strategy, Reynolds said, is having these events outside where there is lots of natural air exchange.
"That's really your best protection, the ability to still social distance from people," she said.
"If you're going to be around people, there's going to be a greater risk in indoor environments. And that goes up relative to the number of people in those enclosed spaces and the ventilation rates, which are largely out of our control."
Despite the risks involved, Reynolds said there are benefits to going back to concerts and other events.
"I think they're good for overall mental health and wellness, which is a big factor in all of this," she said.
"We haven't quite figured out how to measure what the trade-offs have been, to isolate and to not have these arts events to go to, which are definitely something that promotes good health and wellness."
It's a tough question, she said.
"Because the risk will never be zero. The risk of infectious disease has never been zero. So we've always had to weigh our risks and make our decisions around that. We make those decisions when we drive a car every day."
When should you wear a mask?
Those who have a high risk of severe illness should consider using a mask or respirator “that provides you with greater protection,” such as an N95 of KN95 mask.
The CDC has a website where you can search for stores that provide free N95 masks as well as a phone line: 800-232-0233 (TTY 888-720-7489). Call ahead to make sure your local store has inventory.
Wearing a mask is not foolproof if not worn properly, Reynolds warned.
Wearing masks “can really reduce your risk, but not if it's not properly fit to you. I think masks can give you a false sense of security if you're not properly fitting them and not properly handling them,” she said.
Mask maintenance and handling are also important to keep yourself safe: “If the outside of your mask is covered in viruses and doing its job and then you're touching that and not washing your hand, there's this whole mask maintenance type of issue, too,” Reynolds said.
On its page about masks and respirators, the ADHS recommends several tips for good mask hygiene, including:
"Try not to adjust your mask too much, and refrain from pulling on or touching the front of your mask. Avoid reaching under your mask for an itch. If you need to remove or readjust your mask, do it by touching the ear loops or ties. Always wash or sanitize your hands after touching your mask.
"When removing your mask to eat or drink ... remove the mask and place it in a clean bag, container or on a designated surface (like a new piece of paper on the far side of your desk)."
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Are restaurants, bars, concerts safe right now? How to decide