Editor's Note — There are few no-risk activities during the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are ways to mitigate risks. Fully vaccinated people are, of course, at much lower risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus than people who haven't been vaccinated. CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen advises approaching your activity decisions with that in mind.
(CNN) — At this point in the pandemic, you might be wondering whether you can swap virtual museum tours for immersive, in-person experiences.
The answer partly depends on the type of museum and your vaccination status. Coronavirus spreads when infected people cough, sneeze or talk and others breathe in those droplets, or when the virus flows through or accumulates in the air. The risk of these modes of transmission increases when many people are gathered closely together and indoors, which could be the case at museums.
People can also contract coronavirus from surfaces contaminated with droplets, so -- while this isn't a primary mode of transmission -- exhibits that include interaction by touch increase that risk, said Regina Davis Moss, the associate executive director of health policy and practice at the American Public Health Association.
Visitors walk along a gangway at the Illusion Museum in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, on April 26.
Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
Fully vaccinated people are at much lower risk for contracting and spreading coronavirus. Many museums "have already adjusted to full Covid protocols, and so now that you're vaccinated, your chance of getting infected in the museum is probably pretty low," said CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and visiting professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health.
However, unvaccinated people remain unprotected, so both groups should avoid medium and large gatherings at museums where safety protocols -- such as physical distancing -- aren't being followed, the CDC has advised. But if you choose to go to a museum, here's what you should consider.
Before you go to a museum
Before you go to a museum, call or check its website to learn whether the museum is complying with CDC guidance for events and gatherings, or similar guidance from state, city or municipal health departments. Recommended safety precautions include mandatory mask-wearing, physical distancing at least 6 feet away from people who don't live in your household, and finding out whether museum employees sanitize frequently touched items as often as possible.
"Most of these events are being able to open up but limiting capacity so that we're avoiding crowds," said Dr. Ada Stewart, a family physician with Cooperative Health in Columbia, South Carolina, and the president of the American Academy of Family Physicians. If museums are limiting the number of visitors, you might need to make a reservation.
Ventilation quality is another important factor, Stewart said. Signs of a well-ventilated room include the ability to run fans and open windows or doors. High ceilings and portable air cleaners that have HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters also help -- as do properly functioning HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems that deliver clean air and dilute potential contaminants.
Visitors enjoy lego sculptures by brick artist Nathan Sawaya during the "The Art of The Brick" exhibit at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on April 22. Completing the exhibit took four years and and 1 million Legos.
Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images
If knowledgeable employees aren't certain about the museum's ventilation quality, other measures are especially important -- such as requiring physical distancing, limiting the number of attendees and enforcing mask-wearing. The CDC has recommended avoiding large gatherings that don't have these precautions in place. If you're traveling long distance to a museum, you may have additional issues to consider, depending on your vaccination status: Unvaccinated people are still advised by the CDC to stay home, but if they choose to travel, they should get tested for coronavirus one to three days before their trip and three to five days after arriving home. Regardless of your second test result, you should also quarantine for seven days.
At the museum
Paying for your tickets online or via touchless payment where possible not only reduces the risk of contact with frequently touched surfaces, but also saves time, Wen said.
Since "we still don't know who's vaccinated and who's not," Stewart said, "it's best to wear your mask" at all times.
And in any place "where people are standing around and crowding around a particular exhibit, I would visit another place until the numbers decrease," Davis Moss said. That includes museum gift shops and cafeterias or restaurants, where people would have to remove their masks to eat or drink. Many museums have outdoor spaces where you can take a snack break if you're at least 6 feet away from people who don't live in your household.
There are museums that have "a theater-type experience," Wen said. "You should realize that there is a higher risk in those settings if many people are congregated together for long periods of time."
Most museums have gotten rid of physically interactive exhibits, Stewart said. But if you engage with them, "assume that these surfaces have not been wiped," Wen said. Use sanitizing wipes to clean any necessary surfaces, such as buttons, before touching them.
"Once you touch that surface, squirt some hand sanitizer onto your hands, and you're good to go," Wen added.
If the museum experience involves a tour, how it's conducted also can influence Covid-19 risk, said Krystal Pollitt, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and assistant professor in chemical and environmental engineering at the Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science.
A safer experience could include "having the tour guides tell people about different rooms and spaces before they enter," and allowing "them to have small groups in a space and then lead them out to the next room, rather than having that direct interaction immediately by the painting or other piece of art or program that's being observed," Pollitt suggested.