States have started lifting stay-at-home orders imposed in response to the coronavirus pandemic ― but with these reopenings have come mixed results. Areas like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida have all seen significant increases in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, while places like New York and Massachusetts have seen a decline.
And while it may be tempting to venture out, particularly after months of isolating yourself from friends and family, is it really safe? Here, experts share how you can assess your personal risk of contracting the coronavirus in certain situations so you can navigate your state’s reopening plans safely.
Check coronavirus stats in your state
“There’s a wide misinterpretation of what it means it to be reopening businesses, even in phases,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness and professor of public health at Columbia University in New York. “People equate the word ‘reopening’ to getting back to normal, and that’s a very big and dangerous mistake.”
It’s important to listen to the caveats of each reopening phase so that you know what is expected of you as a customer, worker or business owner to help your community prevent the virus from spreading rapidly, Redlener said.
“Reopening has a very localized meaning,” said Felipe Lobelo, an epidemiologist and senior physician consultant in population health research for Kaiser Permanente of Georgia. “People need to be aware of how much virus transmission is in their ZIP codes or counties. The more local information you’re able to get, the better.”
This means that while it’s important to know what’s going on in your state, dig a little deeper and look into that stats in your town, along with the recommendations of area health officials.
Think about other people’s risk in addition to your own
Determining your individual risk is fairly easy, Redlener said. But in a pandemic, community risk is a larger concern.
“It’s important to think about not only your personal risk, but the risk of your community, and the prevalence of the disease,” Redlener said. “I’ve heard people argue that others must judge for themselves the degree of risk they are willing to take, but that’s not appropriate in this situation.”
Older adults (typically 55 to 65 years and up), especially those with preexisting health conditions, and individuals who are immunocompromised are often the most at risk for contracting and having complications from the coronavirus.
“You have to adopt these reopenings not only to your own personal health status, but the health status of your family, in addition to what the virus transmission is like in your community,” Lobelo said.
When you’re deciding to do an activity, take your family and community members into consideration if you know you’ll be near them after you go out.
“If you’re a single person living alone in an apartment, how you act will be very different to someone living in a multigenerational family home or in close quarters with older relatives who may have chronic illnesses,” Redlener said.
Opt for outside first if you can
“I personally try to avoid closed environments as much as possible,” Lobelo said. “We know that whether it’s an office or a restaurant, these types of indoor settings are much better for transmission of the virus.”
This means if you have to go out (or just really, really want to) try to do it in open air ― even if restaurants in your area are starting to take indoor diners. And if you do end up indoors, make sure to wear a mask, Lobelo said.
Other steps you should be taking are to make sure you continue to social-distance outside and inside, and don’t go out at all if you feel ill.
“These are the best stopgap measures we have until a vaccine is approved and ready,” Redlener said.
Know that your risk increases the more places you go or people you’re around
Don’t go wild the second you’re able to start going to reopened stores, salons, restaurants, camps or day cares.
“There is a cumulative risk the more time you spend in an indoor environment, and the risk increases if a majority of people (or yourself) aren’t wearing masks,” Lobelo said. “Even if you’re trying to keep your distance, the more people you or your kids interact with is an opportunity for the virus to jump between hosts.”
Be strategic about where you choose to go, and limit the number of places and visits. Also consider the collective risk of your family when you put yourself and others in these types of settings.
When in doubt, put social distancing and mask-wearing above all else
In an attempt to offset risk, many people are abiding by a two-week grace period after each phase of reopening to see how their community handles it or is affected. And while this may help calm any personal anxiety, doing this will unfortunately have little effect if you’re more susceptible to the virus.
“No matter what date you decide to start going out, we won’t know how virus transmission was for about 10 days after,” Lobelo said. “Instead, the best thing you can do is to limit your time in indoor places and wear a mask.”
However, both Lobelo and Redlener say that if you find your mental health is suffering due to isolation and you’re a low-risk individual, you should go out as long as you do so safely.
“If there’s someone you want to meet up with and you’re able to have a picnic at the park and stay 6 to 8 feet away, that’s OK,” Redlener said. “Inviting all of your friends over to your apartment and not wearing a mask is not. It’s all about how you apply the principles set by health experts.”
And, once again, remember that this isn’t just about you. These measures are for your friends, your family, your city and the country.
“Every time you take a risk [like not wearing a mask] you’re taking a risk on someone else’s behalf. It’s not just about personal health, it’s about public health,” Redlener said.
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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