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How to Stay Safe as Things Open Up During the Pandemic

Experts weigh the risks of returning to restaurants, beaches, hair salons and more

spinner image business owner opening the door of her restaurant while wearing face mask
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Editor's note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on June 12 released a set of guidelines for the public as communities across the country ease stay-at-home restrictions and people begin to resume normal routines. Included are questions that can help individuals assess their risks for activities such as dining out, working out and attending large and small events. There are also tips for navigating each activity as safely as possible. You can find the guidance here.

En español | As stay-at-home orders lift in some areas, and businesses and community centers begin to open their doors again, you may be eager to head out. Who can blame you? But the lifting of restrictions doesn't provide a free pass to go back to all your usual haunts or resume your previous activities.

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For one thing, the risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus is still out there. In fact, “the opening of many states doesn't mean COVID is decreasing in many areas, just that hospitals have capacity and the harms of shutdown outweigh the benefits,” says Daniel J. Morgan, M.D., a professor of epidemiology and public health and infectious disease at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. With the lifting of restrictions, he predicts, “we are likely to see more cases.”

The safest move continues to be to stay home as much as possible. But if you do venture out, there are ways to protect yourself, minimize close contact with others and reduce your exposure to the virus. Here's what experts advise about specific venues:

Eating at a restaurant

Morgan: “Most experts believe bars and restaurants are among the more difficult places to practice social distancing and cleaning. I would recommend anyone with chronic lung disease, diabetes, heart disease and even obesity and those over age 65 avoid these areas until we get through the COVID risk period — that is, until a vaccine is available or the virus stops circulating."

David Aronoff, M.D., director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville: “If the information isn't available on the website, call ahead and get a feel for what the restaurant is doing to keep its employees and patrons safe. Employees should be wearing cloth masks and the management should be screening them for symptoms of COVID on a daily basis. There should be plenty of spacing — at least 6 feet — between tables and good signage about maintaining distance and good hand-sanitizing practices. Generally, it's frowned upon to have waiting areas; it's better to have a system for texting when the table is ready.”

Michael G. Knight, M.D., patient safety officer and assistant professor of medicine at George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates in Washington, D.C.: “Enjoying a meal from your favorite restaurant via takeout or delivery is still the lowest-risk option. However, if you are living in a community that is reopening due to decreasing coronavirus infection rates, and you are not in a high-risk group, you may consider visiting a local restaurant that's taking safety precautions. These include seating at least 6 feet away from other diners, restaurant staff wearing masks and washing their hands frequently, and offering outdoor seating, which is preferred to indoor dining rooms.”

Shopping at retail stores

Morgan: “For those under age 65 and without chronic health conditions, I think these are generally safe. I would encourage being extra attentive to wearing a mask, avoiding touching your face, and practicing good hand hygiene before and after going.”

Aronoff: “The way forward as we reopen our communities is really a social contract that needs to be held up by both parties — employers and shoppers. People need to respect maintaining physical space between one another, including staying 6 feet apart in line. Look for businesses that have ample space, or where they're controlling the density of people coming in. For older adults or those at high risk, if you don't need something urgently call ahead and see if the store would be willing to open early or stay open late so you can avoid crowds. One thing that isn't a problem is touching products other people have touched — this virus doesn't get into our bodies through our skin. Just bring hand sanitizer along, and use it before you touch your eyes, mouth or nose.”

spinner image Woman getting her hair styled at a salon. Both the woman and her stylist are wearing face masks and gloves.
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Going to a hair salon

Aronoff: “Proximity is an important driver of transmission, and salons create closeness between people — so you need to balance the risks versus the benefits. It's best to go to a salon that chooses to work at reduced capacity to decrease the density of people. They should ask employees and customers to wear cloth masks or have customers cover their nose and mouth with a clean towel [during shampooing, for instance]. If you're not feeling well, cancel the appointment; employees should do the same."

Knight: “Limit the frequency of visits to hair salons. If you decide to visit a hair salon, choose one where the employees are wearing a mask and washing their hands or changing gloves between clients. Choose a salon that's offering services by appointment only to avoid waiting next to other customers. Also, choose a salon that is limiting capacity or is spacious enough to allow for at least 6 feet of distance between other clients and yourself.”

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Hitting the gym or yoga studio

Morgan: “Gyms are especially difficult. People are often close together, and there is a lot of shared contact. I would recommend avoiding gyms for all people, but especially those over 65 or with other medical conditions, at least for the initial part of reopening. Personal training is likely safer than group sessions, but all involve a significant amount of contact.”

Knight: “I generally do not recommend visiting gyms or yoga studios unless there is limited to no coronavirus transmission in your community. If those conditions are met, limit the number of weekly visits that you make to the gym, and choose gyms that are taking safety precautions, such as employees wearing masks and deep cleaning of all equipment and surfaces regularly. Be sure to wipe down machines before and after use, and stay at least 6 feet from other patrons.”

Aronoff: “Gyms should increase the space between equipment, have fresh air circulating and disinfectant available for workout machines, and ask people to shower at home. Even with those precautions, it's a higher-risk place because people are breathing harder [while exercising], which increases the respiratory droplets in the air. Also, some people go to the gym when they're not feeling well to try to ‘sweat it out.’ It's important as part of our new social contract not to behave that way — to work out at home or outside instead.”

Playing tennis or golf

Aronoff: “Golf courses are fine, but you don't want to get into a golf cart with people you don't live with. You'd be better off having your own [cart] or walking the course. With tennis, the ball is the commonly touched object; it's important to remember not to touch your eyes, mouth or nose [after touching the ball] until you wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.”

Knight: “Outdoor tennis courts and golf courses are lower-risk options for those who want to enjoy their favorite sport. Still, remember to maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and others. On the golf course, you may also consider wearing a mask. I would not recommend sharing equipment such as golf clubs or tennis rackets, and be sure that any high-touch surfaces are disinfected.”

Going to the beach

Knight: “I would recommend going to a beach only if transmission rates are limited in your community and there are capacity limits at the beach. A crowded beach is a high-risk situation. A secluded area, with limited visitors, is preferred. The risk is not in the virus being transmitted in the water, but from being in close proximity to other people in the water or on the beach."

Aronoff: “Beaches are fine, and being outside, especially near water, often helps people feel better. Just don't get into close groups of people other than those you live with. Respect social distancing — stay at least 6 feet apart. Beach volleyball probably isn't a good idea right now."

Attending places of worship

Knight: “If coronavirus transmission in your community is limited, and places of worship have reopened, attend an outdoor service, if possible. If the service is indoors, choose to attend services where attendees are asked to wear a mask, and where capacity is limited to allow for at least 6 feet of distancing between individuals. There has been evidence suggesting that certain activities like singing can increase the distance that the virus can spread from someone's mouth and nose. Singing in close proximity to others, in an indoor setting, is not recommended.”

Aronoff: “Places of worship are a big challenge because they include groups of people who care a lot about each other and often greet each other closely or sit closely together. They're often surrogate families for people, and it can be hard to be apart from those families, especially during stressful times. Many places of worship have developed ways to hold their services online — and that's to be encouraged. Others are having multiple services a day to reduce density.”

Staying at Airbnbs

Aronoff: “Those are relatively low-risk. The understanding is that you'll be sleeping on clean sheets and pillowcases, and won't be coming into prolonged close contact with other people."

Knight: “The safety of Airbnbs will depend on the precautions taken by the host/owner and the surrounding community. I would not recommend traveling to a community with significant coronavirus transmission rates to stay in an Airbnb. For communities with limited spread, ask the host/owner about safety precautions, such as deep cleaning between guests with appropriate disinfectants. I suggest selecting Airbnbs where you have the entire place to yourself. Be sure to wipe down high-touch areas on arrival as an extra precaution. I also recommend selecting an Airbnb with self-check-in and -checkout procedures to limit interactions with other people.”

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