If you close your eyes on a warm day, you can almost imagine the world in a simpler time. Pools are open and safe, Major League Baseball isn’t on hold and the words “social distancing” are far from everyone’s mind.
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But unfortunately, that isn’t our current reality.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t going away anytime soon. We can’t just send it off to summer camp so we can go on with our lives. Instead, we’ll need to learn to live with it for now. This can feel frustrating, confusing and strange as the allure of a normal world seems to be at our fingertips, but we cannot let our guard down.
“There’s still a lot of COVID-19 in our communities and in our hospitals,” says Aaron Hamilton, MD. “We’ve done a lot in society to flatten the curve, which kept people safe and helped healthcare manage the critically ill patients – but this isn’t going away over the course of the summer. The virus is not gone.”
As states and businesses open back up and life tries to carry on, it can be tricky to determine what activities and events are safe and what’s worth skipping.
But Dr. Hamilton says being aware of (and following!) the proper guidelines and safety measures can help you determine the risk level associated with a particular activity. There are actions we can all take that might not look or feel normal, but they can help protect us as we all learn to live in this new world.
Consider time, space & people
When considering an activity or event, Dr. Hamilton says that it comes down to three main factors: time, space and people.
Carefully weigh how much time you’ll be spending at the activity. Less time means limiting your risk of exposure to the virus.
Is the activity or event taking place outside or indoors? If it’s indoors, consider how enclosed or ventilated the space is. We know that right now, it’s safer to be outside than inside (but that doesn’t mean the risk of catching the virus outdoors is zero). You should also consider if the space has a limit on how many people can be there at one time. This will clue you in to how easy or difficult it will be to maintain physical distance from others.
Consider if the people you’ll be interacting with (especially if they’re outside of your direct household) are following and respecting safety guidelines, which include:
- Social distancing a minimum of six feet from others.
- Wearing a face mask.
- Practicing good hand hygiene and cleanliness.
- Not sharing food or touching common surfaces.
- Staying home when feeling sick.
Where on the spectrum does the activity fall?
“When thinking about the risk of an activity, I like to think of it as a spectrum,” explains Dr. Hamilton. “It’s less about safe vs. not safe, and more about layers of risk. Everybody will have to do a risk assessment for themselves and determine where they’re comfortable and what safety guidelines they’re going to follow.”
On one end of the spectrum, the absolute safest thing to do is to stay at home with your family. On the other end of the spectrum would be large, indoor gatherings.
Certain activities will always carry a much higher risk than others. A large, indoor concert is going to be more dangerous than an outdoor picnic with a couple of friends who are following safety measures. How often you choose to partake in risker activities and events matters as well.
You’ll need to ask yourself: What am I not comfortable with? Who am I interacting with? How long will I be there? What steps will I take to keep myself safe?
The degree of safety depends on the degree to which you comply with the guidelines.
“It’s really about assessing the risk of an activity and making a decision and if you decide to participate, you exhibit the behaviors that we know help protect everyone – like social distancing, washing your hands, wearing a face mask and that sort of thing,” says Dr. Hamilton.
Here are 9 popular activities and events and what to consider when it comes to weighing the risk. (Important caveat: Realize all of these risk levels are simply estimates and your own personal risk will sometimes depend on factors that aren’t always under your control or obvious to you at the moment.)
- Get a haircut at a salon or barbershop: Low to medium risk. Call ahead and verify that your salon or barbershop is following proper guidelines, like requiring everyone to wear a face mask, spacing clients out, screening for symptoms and ensuring sanitation measures between every single client. Also consider how often you’ll be going to a business like this.
- Go to the doctor or have a procedure done: Low risk. Hospitals, emergency departments and doctor’s offices are taking extra precautions to keep patients safe during the pandemic. From emergency care to elective procedures like liposuction and Botox – healthcare is safe and following the most up-to-date protocols. Many health systems are also now requiring patients to get tested for COVID-19 a few days prior to having a procedure. Virtual telemedicine options are also great for those who have a chronic medical condition or those who still want to remain at home during the pandemic.
- Exercise at the gym: High risk. Right now, the safest place to work out is at home or outside, but the decision to return to the gym after quarantine is personal. If you decide to go, you’ll want to minimize your time there to reduce your risk of exposure. So get in, get your workout done and get out. Also consider gyms with fresh air ventilation, like open windows or garage doors. Check to make sure proper guidelines are being followed – like limiting people, regularly sanitizing equipment and social distancing.
- Fly on an airplane: High risk. At this point in time, we should avoid unnecessary travel. If you absolutely must get on an airplane, it’s important to follow safety guidelines. Limit what you touch, wear a face mask, wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face and maintain physical distance from others (especially waiting in line to board the plane or waiting at baggage claim).
- Go to a barbeque, graduation party or wedding: Medium to high risk (depending on the crowd). Consider whether you will be outside or inside and if you can maintain physical distance from those outside of your direct household. Also, consider how the food is served and how much you’ll be touching shared surfaces. A family-style dinner or shared dessert table is not recommended at this time. Remember, your risk is considerably lower if you’re around fewer people. You’ll need to determine if you’ll be interacting with others who are taking safety measures seriously. Every new person you interact with carries a risk.
- Go to a restaurant (outdoors vs. indoors): Low to high risk. Having dinner outside on a patio and away from others outside of your direct household is much less risky than sitting inside, say at the bar. Many restaurants follow guidelines that include: Spacing tables out, servers wearing masks and putting up physical barriers between tables. Unfortunately, eating and drinking doesn’t quite lend itself to wearing a face mask, so you’ll need to take that into consideration as well. Call ahead to find out what protocols are being followed so you know what to expect before you go.
- Attend a class or workshop: Medium risk. Whether it’s an art class, DIY workshop or a training group for your dog, be sure to check what precautions are in place to keep you safe. Group size should be limited, people should be spaced out and equipment should not be shared. Call ahead to determine if face masks will be required and if the space is cleaned between groups or classes. Also consider if the class or workshop is taking place outdoors or inside.
- Visit a beach: Low to medium risk. Risk increases when beaches become crowded and people can’t keep a safe distance from one another. But if you’re able to physically separate yourself from others, you can swim and enjoy the beach pretty safely.
- Go to the pool: Medium to high risk. Problems arise during the social activities that usually happen when hanging around pools. The danger isn’t necessarily in the water itself, but from the people that you’ll likely interact with while at the pool. Crowded locker rooms, waiting in line for a water slide, chairs bunched together and others wading in the water near you can all carry a risk. Determine if your pool is limiting people, spacing out chairs and enforcing social distancing, especially while swimming or waiting in line.
When it comes to attending activities and events, the key is to take the same COVID-19 precautions you would anywhere else. If you can’t take those precautions, it’s probably best to skip it and be safe, says Dr. Hamilton.
As we all try to determine our new normal, remind yourself that the recommendations are there to keep COVID-19 in a place where we can manage it until we have treatments and vaccines available.