The CDC classified Black Friday shopping as a 'higher-risk activity' — experts say masks and avoiding crowds are key

  • Black Friday looks totally different thanks to the coronavirus.
  • The CDC has classified shopping in crowded stores as higher risk.
  • Experts recommend avoiding crowds, wearing a mask, and having a plan.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

This year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) classified Black Friday shopping in crowded stores as a "higher-risk activity" along with "attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household." Shopping online is rated as "lower risk."

It all means the shopping holiday the day after Thanksgiving will look different this year.

Most stores that historically begin Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving will remain closed on the holiday, opening early Friday morning instead. Walmart, Target, and Best Buy have all reduced Black Friday sales hours in stores compared to previous years, instead moving many deals online and spreading them through November, with increased options for curbside pickup and online orders.

Dr. Stephen Kessler at the Harvard School of Public Health told Business Insider that shopping in stores this year carries a "midlevel risk, which is increasing," as cases spike across the US. The timing of the holiday is "pretty unfortunate," he said, as these spikes increase risks of infection.

Read more: Walmart's Black Friday plans are completely different this year due to the pandemic — here's what to expect

Based on studies he's read, "stores aren't as high risk as places where people gather for a while without masks, like indoor dining. In terms of risky behavior, this is middle ground," Kessler, who studies the spread of infectious diseases, told Business Insider. To understand where it falls as a risk, he said that it is safer than going to a restaurant, but riskier than going on an outdoor walk. Kessler wouldn't say shopping in person is "unsafe," but "I personally would try to take measures to do it more safely, mostly online," he said. 

Dr. Stanley Perlman, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Iowa, told Business Insider that "masks and social distancing are most important," while gloves may be counterproductive. "Safety is relative this year," he wrote in an email, "the risks will be lower if the rules are followed." 

Perlman and Kessler agreed that avoiding crowds will also be key for shoppers' and retail workers' safety. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of infectious disease at Baylor University, told Business Insider that mitigation strategies are important. "Going during off hours, low crowd times, and having a plan when you're going to these stores is going to be critical." She compared Black Friday to grocery shopping, and said that knowing what you're in the store for and getting it without spending more time than necessary would be a helpful strategy. 

Read more: REI gives its employees a paid day off on Black Friday, but hourly workers say that it's a 'marketing move' and that the company has strayed from its co-op roots

To evaluate the risks of shopping at particular stores, Weatherhead said shoppers should "go to a place where they're taking the virus seriously, and they have rules and regulations for both the shoppers, as well as for the employees," like wearing masks and hand sanitizer. "They're providing that space within their store, and they've created policies showing that they're taking the virus seriously to reduce the shoppers' and the employees' risk of transmission." The size of the store isn't necessarily an indicator of safety, she said, but shoppers should consider how seriously the store is taking the risks.

Finally, Kessler also recommended that shoppers go solo, though Black Friday is often a social activity. "If you go with a group of 3 friends, there's a chance one of them is infected. If that's the person who stays home, that's one less train of transmission," he said. "Try to keep those principles in mind."

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