Experts continue to recommend social distancing as the best preventative measure against the coronavirus, but that does not always necessarily mean self-isolation. Even the most careful people must still leave their homes on occasion, and not all activities outside the house present the exact same risks. Experts are now ranking different activities by their danger level, describing how people can get outside while still protecting themselves.
While a complete re-opening of public spaces remains unsafe in the United States, no one can manage to stay completely confined to their home all the time. Nor do they need to, according to a new report by Business Insider. The outlet spoke with Dr. Susan Hassig, an epidemiologist at Tulane University, who ranked various activities based on how high the risk of spreading coronavirus was. Hassig's ranking seemed to generally match up with other experts' advice from the last two months, providing a blueprint for how to make the most of life throughout this global crisis.
The advice for making safe forays out into the world comes as other countries around the world begin to ease stay-at-home orders and business restrictions thanks to a sharp decrease in coronavirus cases and deaths. According to a report by CNBC, countries in Europe and Asia saw favorable numbers to re-open public spaces, while the U.S. has maintained a high number of new cases — now account for about 30 percent of the world's infections with just 5 percent of the world's population.
However, some of these countries have reportedly had to re-impose lockdown orders when cases spiked again. These include China and South Korea, which went back into lockdown this month as COVID-19 cases rose again. This is why some experts say that a full re-opening of public life will not be possible until a vaccine is available.
In the meantime, people are advised to look for ways to get outside, stay active and connect with others without putting their own health or the health of their friends and family at risk. To do so, they should prioritize low-risk activities as much as possible. Here's a breakdown of what kinds of activities carry the lowest risk of spreading the coronavirus from lowest to highest.
Receiving Packages and Deliveries
To start, Hassig assured readers that opening mail and packages, and even receiving deliveries of groceries or take-out food are all relatively low-risk when it comes to the coronavirus. Hassig said that she herself does not even wipe down groceries after receiving them, as some have been doing, believing that there is little chance the virus will have survived on their surface by the time she gets around to handling them.
Still, Hassig said that non-perishable items that do not need to be refrigerated might as well be kept in their bags for a few days just to be safe. Thankfully, most grocery store workers and delivery drivers now wear masks and gloves on the job, reducing the risk even more. Hassig said that people should still take care to touch doorknobs, elevator buttons and similar public services as little as possible.
Shopping for groceries or other goods at this point is also relatively low-risk, Hassig said — as long as everyone observes the basic courtesies of wearing masks and gloves, and keeping six feet away from others whenever possible. The biggest adjustment here is to take particular care at check-out, where interacting with cashiers and coming close to other customers is all but inevitable. As hard as it is, people should remember not to be in a rush at the check-out counter.
By now, most department stores have closed fitting rooms, but if they haven't Hassig said to avoid them altogether. For employees, she said any clothes have been tried on and not purchased by customer should be quarantined for at least a couple of days before being put back on the shelves.
Beaches, Parks and Hiking Trails
One of the hardest things for many people to accept is that outdoor recreation like beaches, parks and hiking trails are not entirely safe. There is a wide gradient within this category, but in general, Hassig said that people should be relatively safe outdoors as long as they avoid crowds, maintain social distance and wear masks.
Running or hiking on designated trails is a particularly good way to get outside, Hassig said. Here, it should be easy to maintain social distance, especially with so many states now enforcing occupancy limits on state parks. As for beaches, they come with a slighly higher risk, especially if others on the beach are not observing social distancing. However, if you can get a swath of sand to yourself, a little time in the sun will do you good.
Surprisingly, Hassig rated outdoor restaurants as relatively low-risk as long as the proper precautions are taken. She said that tables should be kept at least six feet apart, and waiters should wear gloves and masks. Customers should do the same until their food arrives as well. Hassig also said to beware of "high-touch items" on the table like condiments or salt and pepper shakers.
As always, it is safest to keep gatherings like this to people who live in the same household with you. According to Hassig, meeting up with friends and family who do not live with you becomes exponentially more dangerous when the encounter goes on for 15 minutes or more. If so, six feet of social distance should be maintained.
Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, love finds a way. Hassig said that there are ways to make dates a "medium risk" activity, with the right precautions. Obviously, outdoor settings like those listed above are preferable, and all the proper precautions should be observed. However, if you've met someone online and you've both been self-isolating for a while, a socially distant walk or outdoor meal is not out of the question.
Hassig said that an important factor here is geography. In an area like New York City with extremely prevalent cases, she said a risk like this might not be worth it. She encouraged people to try and do their own version of contact-tracing in their lives, and be honest with those they plan to meet up with about possible exposures.
Hair and Nail Salons
Haircuts and nail appointments are medium risk at best, according to Hassig. Obviously, true social distancing is impossible here, but stylists and customers alike should absolutely wear masks if they decide to go through with this kind of appointment. Customers should also avoid touching their faces during and after the appointment until they can wash up. Stylist should wash their hands frequently.
Indoor restaurants are a big concern, and Hassig said they carry a medium risk. As several studies have shown, the air flow from heating, cooling and ventilation systems in restaurants can spread contagious particles from table to table even with social distancing in place. If they find a restaurant open and they decide to go out, Hassig said that people should wear masks until their food arrives.
Restaurants are encouraged to use disposable materials, including flatware, menus and even tablecloths. Thankfully, many establishments are only offering take-out or curbside pickup at this time.
Early on in the coronavirus outbreak, gyms and indoor fitness centers were identified as one of the riskiest places to go. However, many of them have reopened in certain states this month, and Hassig said that they straddle the line between medium and high risk for coronavirus infection. She advised people to wipe down equipment before and after they use it, wear a mask the entire time they are in the building, and avoid wiping their faces as much as possible.
A similar report by The Wall Street Journal noted that a gym is a high risk place because of the relative lack of control an individual has on their social distance and the surface they're touching. David Thomas, the director of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told the outlet that the level of exertion of other people in the gym is one of the biggest factors.
"We now understand that the degree of expiration, which is how hard you're forcing air out of your mouth — to sing or shout or exhale — is a major factor in the amount of particles that get forced out of your lungs," he said, adding: "I would want the person working out next to me to be wearing a mask."
Movie Theaters, Live Entertainment and Sporting Events
Public events with big crowds are inherently high risk activities, Hassig said. Anything from a movie theater to a stage performance to a sporting arena involves too many people too close together for too long a time. In most of the world, these events have been the slowest to reopen, so thankfully the decision is out of most peoples' hands. However, Hassig warned that even a small theater promising to promote social distancing inside carries a high risk of infection.
Religious services are sadly very high risk activities with few options for adapting to social distancing effectively. Indoor services will draw big crowds, and often older populations, many of whom face a more serious risk from catching the coronavirus than their younger counterparts.
Hassig said that many religious services would have to change almost beyond recognition to be safe during the coronavirus pandemic. This means masks, gloves and six feet of distance, and no hand-shaking, exchanging of sacraments or other physical touching. Some services have been trying to make these changes, but if they haven't, they are a risky activity.
Hassig said bluntly that bars "should not be allowed to open." The risk of contracting the coronavirus in a bar is very high, and the chances of a bar truly adapting to social distancing is slim. Obviously, patrons will not be able to wear masks while they drink, and since alcohol can hinder decision-making skills, they are not likely to keep six feet of social distance either.
Gatherings of Family and Friends
Finally, one of the most risky activities is unfortunately one of the first that people will try to revive: private gatherings of family and friends. Hassig said that getting together with people who do not live in your household comes with "a potential risk," especially because of the comfort and trust between them. She noted that people are unlikely to wear masks in these kinds of settings, and social distancing is likely to break down as well. The social pressures of these kinds of encounters can get complicated quickly if everyone is not on the same page.0comments
Hassig encouraged people to wear masks and gloves and stay six feet apart if they decide to see friends and family. She also said they should be honest about possible exposures they've had and ask directly about any their friends have had as well, bearing in mind that anyone and everyone is a possible asymptomatic carrier. Some measure of amateur contact tracing is necessary here.
Hassig also advised people to think about who they might be seeing in the near future — especially those who are older or have compromised immune systems. She reminded readers: "it's not just your friend" you're seeing — "it's everybody they've spent time with." For the latest information on the coronavirus pandemic, visit the websites of the CDC and the World Health Organization.