If you’re worried about hanging out with friends at a bar because at some point, you might have to use the public bathroom, “that’s the least of your worries,” says William C. Miller, MD, MPH, PhD, senior associate dean of research and professor at The Ohio State University College of Public Health.
The bar itself is the bigger challenge when it comes to preventing the spread or transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if you’re hanging out indoors. “Maintaining physical distancing in bars is difficult. And as if it is crowded, people tend to have to speak loudly, which increases the potential for transmission. Essentially, in a bar, you’re mixing with everyone else in the bar. If one person is infected, you can expect several others to become infected,” he says. It has famously happened recently in Jacksonville Beach, FL, where a group of 16 friends went to a bar to celebrate a birthday and all tested positive afterward. Reports are filtering in from Louisiana and Idaho as well.
Sitting or standing outside the bar is likely to be a little better in preventing acquiring or transmitting COVID-19. “But it is still important to consider whether the people you’re socializing with are people you’ve been with or people that you haven’t seen for a while. If it is people you haven’t seen, you’re expanding your social circle and increasing risk. And it is hard to wear a mask and drink, so you’ll lose that element of the protection,” Dr. Miller says.
Also keep in mind that alcohol has never had a reputation for making people more cautious about anything. So it’s not a big leap to conclude that people are going to be less rigorous about mask wearing and social distancing.
Infectious diseases specialist Emily Landon, at the University of Chicago Medicine, MD, memorably put it this way in a recent story by NPR: “Always choose outdoors over indoor, always choose masking over not masking and always choose more space for fewer people over a smaller space.”
OK, but what about the bathroom?
“Bathrooms have two potential modes of transmission, the air and surfaces,” Dr. Miller says. “You can manage the risk for surfaces by washing your hands thoroughly as you’re leaving, and then using the paper towel to open the door.”
Paper towels are good for drying hands—one study from UConn Health on bacteria, not coronaviruses, found that air dryers tended to stir up bacteria that was already in the room and could deposit it back on hands. Nobody really knows what the deal might be with coronaviruses, but paper towels are likely not a bad idea.
“The air in the bathroom is harder to manage. Here you only have control over the length of time you’re in there, but don’t skimp on the hand washing to get out,” Dr. Miller says. “A good bathroom will have a ventilation fan running constantly during business hours—not just when someone is in there.” In other words, if the fan isn’t on when the light isn’t on, that’s not great.
If you can’t tell whether a fan is running, you can do the sniff test (through your mask, though, because you need to be wearing it in there) and assume that more stink equals less air circulation.
None of this is simple; there are complicated factors that go into assessing the risk of going to a bar and of using the bathroom there. You should take into consideration things including the number of cases in your area, the behaviors you’re seeing in the bar, and your own vulnerability. And even when you do consider all that, there’s no exact formula for how those factor into a personal should-you-or-shouldn’t-you go to a bar decision. Of course, it’s a moot point if you live in somewhere like Texas, which is now moving to shut down bars to stop the spread of the virus.
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