Just because many businesses are open again doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. The coronavirus is still on the loose — actually surging in many locations — which means people have to make serious choices about their health all day, every day.
Nothing in life is without risk, and decisions ultimately hinge on individual calculations. But, according to the public health experts we consulted, there are steps you can take — and signs to look for — to make you feel comfortable and help you decide whether to open the door and walk in. Sometimes, you may want to opt out.
First and foremost, assess your personal situation.
People with certain health conditions — from heart disease to diabetes or obesity, patients undergoing treatments for cancer, or people who are older or who live with older relatives, for example — should limit their outings to a far greater extent than people not in higher-risk categories.
“Some people should not take that risk at all,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “It doesn’t mean you can’t go outside, or go somewhere where you can chill out and relax. But do it away from other people.”
The advice you’ve heard all along still holds: When you go out, wear a mask, keep your distance from others and avoid crowds.
You should also notice the mask-wearing habits at stores and restaurants you might visit. In general, the experts agreed: no mask, no customer. Employees, owners, managers and customers should all have them. If they are not being used, walk away, experts said, especially in regions mandating face coverings. Also, look for signs on the door directing people to wear masks.
Here are additional considerations for situations you may encounter:
Retail: It’s a plus if an employee is checking customers for masks before they enter. Other things to look for: stores with sanitizer to wipe down baskets, limits on the number of people inside and arrows directing traffic.
“I find a store that has gone to the trouble to mark out places for people to stand in line 6 feet apart indicate the store is taking it seriously,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.
Extra credit for stores that say they are taking steps to improve their ventilation and filtration systems. Large or outdoor areas are a positive sign. But smaller shops can also arrange displays and merchandise in ways that support social distancing.
Restaurants: Look for tables spaced well apart. Outdoor trumps indoor. “Go to a place where you can make a reservation outside,” said Benjamin, who said he has recently dined inside, too. “But there are issues with airflow, so outside is better.”
Hair salons: Common areas should be cleaned regularly and the number of customers limited. Select salons that make appointments. Bonus points if you can wait outside until they call or text you to say it’s your turn.
Gyms/pools: Look for facilities with room to space out equipment. Cleaning supplies should be plentiful. Mask requirements are better than not, but some activities make usage difficult. Outdoor classes are better than indoor. Pools should limit the number of people in lanes and instruct swimmers to avoid bunching at the walls or other areas.
Cleaning/home repair: Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, pointed out that there are differences in considerations for someone, such as repair person, who is an occasional or rare visitor, and someone who comes in regularly, such as a house cleaner. “Having an open dialogue about practices to follow and potential illnesses with someone who is regularly in your house is ideal,” she said.
A tip for cleaning day: Plan to be out, or move to different parts of the house — perhaps to the second floor while they clean the first — to minimize exposure.
For more occasional situations, such as repairs, workers should wear masks when speaking with you or entering your home. If all the activity is performed outside, such as gardening or repairing a fence, face coverings are not such a concern.
Plescia said it’s best to ask such questions or state your requirements when scheduling the appointment. “If you communicate ahead of time and they show up without a mask, you can say, ‘We discussed this.’” To ratchet it up a notch, inquire about the worker’s health. Have they been sick? How are they feeling? Have they tested positive or been around anyone who has?
It’s also important to be courteous, said Sell. “The homeowner needs to wear a mask as well when in the same space as the worker. And obviously, you wouldn’t want to arrange for such a visit if you were sick.”
Day care/camp for kids: If the facility is inside, check to see if counselors/caregivers are wearing masks. While indoors, ideally, the kids should be, too. Other important questions to ask: Are staffers regularly tested for the coronavirus? Ask about sick leave policy. Do they have one? If it’s a small place, there may not be a formal policy. But inquire about workers’ ability to stay home without losing their jobs if they are sick or test positive, said Sell.
Hotels: Rooms should be cleaned thoroughly and, in the best case, vacated at least several hours before you arrive. Other tangibles that can add peace of mind: hard-plastic dividers between you and front-desk staff and limits on groups of people gathering in lobbies. It’s even better if they have “touchless” check-in. Once in your room, wipe down surface areas — tables, light switches and, especially, the television remote control. Consider bringing your own pillow.
What to avoid: All three experts said to skip bars, especially indoor settings, as it’s almost impossible to properly distance from others or to wear masks. “You go to bars because you enjoy the fact there’s other people there and, when there are a lot of people, it’s hard to keep 6 feet distance,” said Plescia. “When people drink, they do lose some judgment and are more likely to let their guard down.” Sporting events, where people “are right on top of each other,” is another taboo, said Benjamin. Sell recommended against house parties or other large gatherings.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
Read more about the coronavirus outbreak from Scientific American here. And read coverage from our international network of magazines here.