SELF: How risky is going to an outdoor area like a beach?
B.B.: This depends. If you go to the beach on a holiday weekend with perfect weather, you can expect it to be crowded with little room for physical distancing.
T.S.: Even if you’re outside, still try to stay away from other groups of people as much as possible. If I were going to be around a bunch of people, I’d still want to be wearing a mask. In windy conditions, the air would in theory disperse the virus, but if you have a lot of crowding on a particular beach and you have someone who is infected and shedding the virus, that could possibly spread the virus to people who are downwind. I don’t think we have any great data on that yet.
SELF: How risky is going to someone’s house or having people over at your house?
B.B.: At this time, I would consider having friends and family from outside your home coming inside to be risky, even with masks. Unless everyone has been tested, we do not know who could be harboring infection, and even if there are no symptoms, we can spread the virus. When you invite someone inside, it may be more difficult to keep a physical distance in rooms, hallways, etc. Another issue is that when inside, people are often touching surfaces (doorknobs, tables, chairs), so this can lead to potential transmission from someone who has the virus. So the backyard (if you have one) is a safer space to have guests compared to inside.
T.S.: Bathrooms are potentially an issue, too. We do know that the virus can live in stool. Presuming it would be aerosolized if someone flushed, it could be on different bathroom surfaces. We don’t really know how long that would live there, but you’d want to go into any bathroom assuming potential for contamination. Wash your hands really well, which hopefully you’d be doing anyway.
E.M.: It’s about how much space you have and how much you trust those people in terms of their ability to respect your personal risk tolerance. And do you respect their tolerance? If it’s not somebody who you can tell, “Please don’t do that, it’s too risky for me,” they probably shouldn’t be coming into your space. We’re not going to see the full impact of places opening up and whether it was a good or bad decision for probably a month. You want to really start slowly. Start with something like having people over to sit in your backyard in a spaced out place or meet in a park. Gradually, as you see what’s happening in your state over the next several weeks and months, then maybe start stepping up the types of interactions you’re having.
Even if you engage in one risky behavior, that doesn’t mean it’s safe to loosen other social distancing measures.
Both Murray and Smith stress that every time you come into contact with someone, loved ones and strangers included, you’re also coming into a sort of extended contact with everyone else that person has seen in recent weeks. You’re potentially exposed to the virus from every person who’s stepped too close to your server or your cashier recently as well as whoever your friend gave a quick hug to before meeting up with you. “Our risk does increase as we bring in people who have larger networks because they are more likely to be exposed to someone who may be incubating the virus,” Smith says. The reverse is also true: The more you start to see people, the more you’re exposing each of them to possible transmission from the other people you’ve seen. States reopening various businesses and allowing certain activities doesn’t change that basic, unfortunate reality.
Depending on your risk factors and those of the people you live with, you may decide to start having short, socially distant interactions with people who don’t live with you. Remember that each of those additional interactions does carry a risk. The fact that you’re around other people while doing something essential like grocery shopping doesn’t somehow negate or justify the risk of something non-essential like going to a mall to shop for clothes. Make sure you’re weighing the risk with relevant information, like local spread of the virus, and staying on top of your area’s safety requirements.
Many of us are longing for life to get back to “normal.” I know I am. Unfortunately, life won’t be normal for quite some time, possibly ever. In the meantime, we have to make smart choices to keep ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities as safe as possible.