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What to Expect in a Phase 1 Reopening of Your City or State

Schools? No. Churches? Yes. Distancing, handwashing and face coverings? Get used to them.

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One month after the White House asked Americans to stay home as much as possible and avoid group gatherings in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the administration released a set of guidelines that state and local leaders can use to gradually loosen these restrictions and return to some semblance of normalcy.

The three-phased “Opening Up America Again” approach, which eventually leads to the reopening of offices, schools, restaurants and sports venues, is contingent on several factors. Before entering the first phase, the guidelines recommend that state and local officials wait for a 14-day downward trajectory of reports of influenza-like and COVID-19-like illnesses, as well as a downward trajectory of documented COVID-19 cases or positive tests. In addition, hospitals should be in a position to treat all patients without crisis care and have a testing program in place for at-risk health care workers. Only then should regions, states or localities move into phase 1 of the reopening process.

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Deciding when and how to send people back to work and school is something states and cities across the country “are wrestling with,” Richard Serino, distinguished senior fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative and former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), said on a recent call with reporters.

“Because one thing you don’t want to do is do this wrong” and see a resurgence of the virus, which is what some health experts predict will happen if communities open too soon. “If you do it wrong in the beginning, it’s going to be difficult for people to believe and trust in their local and state governments. So they have to get this right,” he added.

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Phase 1 Reopening Guidelines

  • All high-risk individuals, including older adults, continue to shelter in place
  • Everyone practices physical distancing
  • Schools remain closed
  • Some businesses open, but with physical distancing guidelines in place
  • Churches, gyms, dine-in restaurants also open with physical distancing, sanitation guidelines in place
  • Bars stay closed
  • People who can telework continue to do so
  • Workers who return to the office go back in phases
  • Common areas in offices are closed; temperature checks are routine
  • Nonessential travel kept to a minimum
  • Senior living facilities and hospitals prohibit visitors
  • Some elective surgeries resume
  • Frequent handwashing is still important; so are face coverings in public

Some regions have announced they are ready to start down the path of reopening their economies. Others, however, are taking a more cautious approach. 

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Here’s what you can expect in the first phase of the reopening process:

Staying home and away from others is still encouraged

For most Americans, life in phase 1 will look a lot like it does now, especially for older adults and people with underlying health conditions who are at high risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus. This population is advised to keep sheltering in place during the first stage of reopening and to avoid contact with others. The same instructions apply to the second phase.  

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“It’s okay to go outside and walk around, take a walk in the woods, but it’s not a good idea to get together in person with others just yet,” explains Wayne C. McCormick, division head of gerontology and geriatric medicine in the Department of Medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. “Stay in touch with your friends and relatives, but do so by phone.”

The guidelines recommend that everyone — even those who are not at high risk for severe illness — keep distance between themselves and other people and avoid groups of more than 10. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends putting at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. Schools should remain closed throughout this initial period, nonessential travel should be minimized and nursing homes and hospitals should continue to prohibit visitors. Telework, for those who can, is still encouraged.

“The advice to the nation hasn’t changed much: Wash your hands, wear a mask when outside among others, self-isolate,” McCormick says. “And I know it’s hard to do; it hasn’t gotten any easier. But at least we’ve gotten good at it. So let’s stay good at it.” 

Back to business, but not as usual

So what will change? A few workplaces may start to bring employees back into the office, albeit a few at a time. Common areas once used for coffee breaks and conversations with coworkers will likely be closed, and temperature checkpoints may become a lobby staple.

Larger venues, such as movie theaters, churches, gyms and dine-in restaurants, can reopen in phase 1 of the administration’s guidelines, but under strict physical distancing protocols. Elective surgeries also may resume at outpatient facilities that adhere to federal guidelines.

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In Georgia, one state that has announced plans to restore economic activity, small businesses such as barber shops and salons are permitted to reopen, as long as they put physical distancing measures in place. Restaurants with dine-in services and theaters are also allowed to resume business, “subject to  specific social distancing and sanitation mandates,” Georgia Governor Brian Kemp announced in a recent news briefing. Bars, nightclubs and live performance venues will remain closed.

“We’re not going to come out of this, people say, ‘like flipping a light switch,’” Serino said. “It’s going to be gradual, which means the economic recovery is going to be gradual.” 

How long phase 1 lasts depends on the situation in each area. When there’s no evidence of a rebound in cases, local leaders can move to the next stage, according to the guidelines. Phase 2 would, among other things, allow schools to reopen and nonessential travel to resume. If there’s still no resurgence in cases, phase 3 would pave the way for older and high-risk people to venture out in public with precautions, workplaces to reopen fully and visits to hospitals and senior care facilities to resume.

A collective effort to slow the spread

Not everyone is eager to relax current mitigation efforts and dive into a reopening strategy. A recent Pew Research Center survey of nearly 5,000 Americans found that two-thirds of adults feel state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too soon; most (73 percent) said the worst of the coronavirus outbreak is still to come. And the latest Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll shows a majority of adults (80 percent) say strict shelter-in-place measures “are worth it in order to protect people and limit the spread of coronavirus.”

The uniquely difficult thing about the coronavirus, Serino explained, is that unlike other disasters — “whether it’s a hurricane, or a flood, or a tornado or even a bombing”— is that there is no clear end and thus no clear beginning for recovery efforts.

“And without a clear end, it’s going to be difficult for people to adjust” to the ever-changing “new normal,” Serino said. “And I think the hardest thing for a lot of people to do ever is change.” 

University of Washington’s McCormick says he’s struck by how well the majority of the people have adhered to stay-at-home orders and physical distancing guidelines. As areas across the country consider the idea of reopening, he says, “it makes sense to still be careful and to still do all the things that we’ve learned to do over the past couple of months.” Doing so will help protect those who are most vulnerable to the virus.

“It’s not about what an individual can accomplish,” Serino added. “Now, actually, more than ever, it’s going to be a collection of people. What we can accomplish as a group of people coming together is going to be how we’re going to get through this.”

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