Expert Says Bars Are 'Super Spreading Venues' that Can Cause Airborne Transmission of Coronavirus

“Even if you’re 10 or 15 feet away, you may still be breathing someone else’s infected air,” says epidemiologist Michael Osterholm

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As cases of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, soar in most of the U.S. and Americans try to figure out how to enjoy some semblance of the summer without getting sick, the difference between outdoor and indoor exposure has become a key focus.

Experts are in agreement that generally, being outdoors is far less of a risk than being in indoor spaces with the general public, in part because of a rising concern about airborne transmission of COVID-19.

Over the weekend, a group of 239 scientists in 32 countries sent an open letter to the World Health Organization, imploring them to recognize that COVID-19 can linger in the air indoors and infect people. Currently, WHO has only stated that COVID-19 can stay in the air after medical procedures that produce a significant amount of respiratory droplets, such as intubating a patient.

RELATED: Dr. Anthony Fauci Calls on Americans to Stop Going to Bars 'Right Now' as Coronavirus Cases Surge

Epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and author of Deadliest Enemy: Our War Against Killer Germs, tells PEOPLE that he’s “worried” about airborne transmission of COVID-19, as case numbers soar in states that reopened their bars, restaurants and other indoor spaces.

“If you're close to someone, you're going to be at a much higher risk of having exposure than if you were farther apart, particularly indoors,” he says. “The virus may float in what we call aerosols in a room that, even if you're 10 or 15 feet away, you may still be breathing someone else's infected air.”

For more from Osterholm on the current state of the coronavirus pandemic, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

This has become clear, Osterholm says, in the weeks after Memorial Day, when many states allowed bars to reopen without requiring masks or social distancing and new infections followed.

“You can conclude clearly that bars, by themselves, seem to be a location of a number of super spreading events,” he says.

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Part of the problem, Osterholm says, has been the confusing messaging about how COVID-19 spreads. Too much energy was spent warning people to wipe down every piece of mail or bag of groceries when respiratory droplets are far more of a concern.

“We’ve learned that very, very, very little virus—to almost nothing—transfers through surfaces,” he says. “I still want people to wash their hands, but people don’t need to wipe down everything that comes into their home. That is absolutely unnecessary.”

For the cooped-up Americans who want to safely see their friends again, Osterholm says a few things are key: being outdoors, wearing a mask and staying apart.

“Outdoors, the virus really dissipates quickly,” he says. “In combination with distance and a mask, you surely reduce the risk.”

RELATED: The Risk of Getting Coronavirus Outdoors Is Low — If Precautions Are Taken

Those were the principles he stuck to on Father’s Day, when he decided “based on the best science I have,” to give each of his grandchildren a 30-second hug outdoors.

“Then I stayed away from them the remainder of the time, outdoors and maintaining that distance, and it was the best father’s day I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.

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