Black Friday is just around the corner, but the COVID-19 pandemic is far from out of sight. Around 65 percent of shoppers are planning on spending their dollars online to avoid the crowds, according to a Deloitte survey about holiday spending habits for 2020. And even if online shopping is nothing new—our tendency to add to our online cart increasing steeply in the last five years—the pandemic has definitely played a role in our habits. Right now, the same survey estimates 51 percent of buyers are feeling anxious about shopping in-store.
That anxiety is justified. Since the U.S. reported its first cases of COVID-19 in January, almost 230,000 people have died, and case counts are still climbing. That’s why like Walmart, Macy’s, and Target, many giant retailers have decided to remain closed on Thanksgiving and extend “Black Friday” into a “Black November,” with deals and sales on thousands of items available in their online stores.
Yet not everyone feels comfortable spending their money online. Whether people want to help small local stores struggling because of the pandemic or just love that feeling of touching a sweater or gadget before purchasing it, some might be planning to venture into their favorite shops on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. If that sounds like you or someone you love, there’s plenty of ways to diminish the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while still snagging those fantastic deals.
“Prevention is always better than exposure,” says Onyema Ogbuagu, an infectious disease expert at Yale’s School of Public Health. If you can, he says, you should just avoid going into stores. But if that’s not a possibility, here are the things that you should keep in mind for the safest Black Friday experience possible.
Check the rates of transmission in your area
Before you even hit the mall or the little bookstore near home, you should look up the transmission rate in your community. Your local government should have this information, but you can also use this U.S. county-by-county map from John Hopkins, which is updated daily.
If your neighborhood has relatively little community transmission of COVID-19, maybe in-person shopping isn’t the worst thing, says Ogbuagu. But if you are in an area where there are high community spread levels—like most of the U.S. right now– you would really want to avoid congregating. This is especially true if you or someone in your family at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms.
It’s all about the masks
“If I had to just choose one [thing that people should do], it would just be mask-wearing,” says Ogbuagu. Researchers have found that if 95 percent of Americans regularly wear masks, the country could save 129,574 people from dying of COVID-19 between September 2020 and February 2021.
“Mask-wearing wasn’t part of our cultural adaptation like in China and other Asian countries, but the evidence points that they really make a difference,” epidemiologist Stephen Morse, who directs the Infectious Disease Epidemiology Certificate Program at Columbia University, says.
If a person is infected, masks prevent their droplets of saliva and mucus from reaching others. Depending on how effective your mask is, it can trap up to 90 percent of the bigger droplets if appropriately adjusted. According to Harvard Medical School, a good rule of thumb to know if your mask is good enough is that you shouldn’t be able to see through it if you hold it up to the light. As multiple studies have shown, indoor settings tend to have lower ventilation than the outside world, meaning that tiny infected particles linger around longer, building up in concentration over time.
But this measure will be most effective if everyone else is wearing a mask, says Morse.
“If everyone is taking all the precautions, the risk is diminished,” he says. The amount of time you spend in each store also plays a role. In May, researchers found that after an infected person talks loudly without wearing a mask, the droplets they emit can linger in the air between eight to 14 minutes. Other papers point out that SARS-CoV-2 could survive for three hours in the form of aerosols (the smallest size of particles). So while you may be tempted to linger inside your favorite shop for a while, it’s best to get in, get what you need, and get out.
Size of the store matters
“There’s so many other factors that could make a large space as infectious as a small space or a small space safer than a large space,” says Ogbuagu. The most important one is how many people are there in the store compared to size and, of course, how many of them are wearing masks.
Although big malls may have extensive common areas, which can provide more ventilation and a better chance to keep the six-feet distance, they can host many people, says Morse. The more shoppers you walk past means an ever-increasing risk. There is a greater chance of getting exposed to the virus in any mass gathering since you have a larger chance of breathing in the lingering aerosols of an infected person.
Remember: check the conditions in common areas and each individual store as well. They might change dramatically, says Ogbuagu. So even if you pop into one super-safe store, it doesn’t mean that their neighbors are playing by the same rules. Tell-tale signs that a store is acting cautiously are limitations in the number of people allowed in, the requirement to wear a mask, hand sanitizer available at the front door, plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers, closed dressing rooms, and others.
Investigate airflow, sunlight, and humidity
If bigger stores have the downfall of more people (meaning more chances of contagion), smaller ones have the possible problem of inadequate ventilation. According to multiple studies, in certain scenarios, less sunlight, reduced humidity, and colder temperatures can keep the virus infectious for longer periods. “I totally understand the sentiment of wanting to support local businesses,” says Ugbuagu. But the conditions within these stores could promote the infection, he says, even if fewer people visit them.
Keep an eye out for safe cleaning practices and barriers
Whether you decide to go to a mall or a tiny store, you should always check that workers are masked up, as well as other shoppers, and keep an eye out for plexiglass or plastic barriers between cashiers and customers when social distancing simply isn’t possible. Contactless payment is even better and already is in action in shops like Target, CVS, Trader Joe’s, and Walmart. Ogbuagu recommends asking how often they are cleaning frequently-touched surfaces like door handles or elevator buttons even though transmission from surfaces is still low.
Lastly, instead of approaching this experience with a binary mindset, it’s better to see it as a gradual increment of risk. No matter what activity you’re doing, there’s always a way to make things a little bit safer, even if that means going inside shared spaces. And wearing masks and washing your hands between stores isn’t just a Black Friday rule of thumb—keep doing it every time you go somewhere to shop, eat, or gather.
“It’s going to be the same thing for Christmas shopping and New Year’s,” says Ogbuagu. “We should all have the mindset that we’re going to have to take these measures many, many months to come.”