States are reopening, but venturing out into the world can’t be the same carefree experience it used to be. It’s crucial to remember that the new coronavirus is still out there and we can’t let our guards down just yet.
There will always be some risk of contracting the virus when leaving the house, says Dr. Matthew Heinz, a Tucson Medical Center hospitalist and internist who assisted in the domestic response to the Ebola crisis.
Data shows that confirmed cases are still at an all-time high, which means it’s not ideal to plan too far ahead for big parties or summer events. It’s sad, we know, but we’re going to listen to the health experts who are urging people to be careful about which activities they plan to partake in.
“The safest way to minimize risk during this pandemic is to remain at home, leaving the home and property only if absolutely necessary and strictly abiding by social distancing, masking, handwashing, and other public health recommendations,” says Heinz.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t go out at all. For the sake of sunshine and our mental health, making future plans is something we all should do — just selectively and wisely, to set expectations. 👌
There’s a lot of contradictory information and advice about what we can and can’t do right now, so we spoke with a few experts to see what got the green light.
Heinz’s first tip: Rent an entire unit, not a private room or even an adjoined guesthouse where other occupants might be present.
Research the travel rules of the location you’re traveling to. Depending on local transmission of the virus, some areas may require people to quarantine for 2 weeks if traveling from out of state.
Travel only with those already in your household, advises Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an infectious diseases specialist at Yale Medicine.
Instead of asking about the previous guests (such as where they traveled from or whether they had symptoms), just assume they had COVID-19 and act accordingly, Heinz says.
For peace of mind, you might want to clean the house yourself. Wipe down all the surfaces (faucets, cabinets, door handles, light switches, washers and dryers — anything people may have touched). “Pay special attention to the bathrooms, because the virus can linger there,” Heinz says.
It can’t hurt to ask the host how they’ll be cleaning and disinfecting the place prior to your arrival too. “Ideally, the space will be left empty for at least 24 hours both before and after your visit to sort of reduce the risk of transmission,” Meyer says.
If the unit has any common areas, like a pool or an exercise facility, avoid them.
Because camping is done outdoors with your own materials (like tents, chairs, and other supplies), the risk is thought to be low. “Camping is a great activity during the COVID pandemic because it is generally outdoors, which is better in terms of the risk of virus transmission and also enables good social distancing,” says Meyer.
But you’ll want to do some homework ahead of time. “Many campsites are limiting how many people attend at a time,” Meyer says. Before heading to the campsite, make phone calls and check the campsite’s availability to get a sense of how packed — or not — it’ll be.
And unfortunately, we have some bad news. Avoid the public restrooms. “Public restrooms are of particular concern and have been shown to harbor large amounts of virus on surfaces and in aerosol/droplet form,” Heinz says.
This might mean planning a shorter trip so you can shower at home, or even poop in the comfort of your own home. If you’re okay with doing the dirty business in nature (we’re talking human waste, not sex!), be sure to be comfortable with picking up after yourself as well.
While at the campsite, stick with your group and avoid close contact with others. Try to avoid common areas, such as covered areas with seating and outdoor grills. If you have to pass by those spaces, take precautions like physical distancing, masks, disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer, and handwashing, says Heinz.
“Like camping, a beach is one of the best places you can be. It is outdoors, which is better for ventilation, and it also enables physical distancing,” says Meyer.
Before you go, look up the beach rules and policies. Meyer says many state-run beaches are allowing residents only. Others may have capacity limits and require a beach badge.
If there are people around, wear a face mask from the parking lot to the beach. Keep your 6-foot distance from others and wear your mask at all times (but not in the water). “You don’t want to wear the mask in the water since it can disrupt breathing when it becomes wet,” Meyer advises.
If you’re bringing snacks to the beach, prepare them at home. Just to be safe, avoid sharing snacks with those outside your household or accepting food from others, Heinz advises.
When it comes to sunscreen, it’s OK to ask those in your household — and only those in your household — to help out with those hard-to-reach spots. “Given the necessary proximity for this process, it is not safe to have individuals from outside the group assist or vice versa,” Heinz said.
Gyms are still a no-go in most cities, and once they open, they may be hotbeds for virus spread. (Exercising involves a lot of heavy breathing, so the risk of spreading respiratory droplets into the air is high.) So you may be taking your workouts outside.
Bring your own equipment, like weights and a towel or mat, and don’t share them. The fewer people involved, the better, Meyer says.
Heinz says any outdoor workouts with friends or a trainer should be done with careful attention to safety precautions and physical distancing measures. Don’t work out in enclosed or partially enclosed spaces, which can limit airflow and circulation.
And yes, you’ll need to mask up.
“Even though the activity is outdoors, due to the relative proximity and the large amount of respiratory droplets that will be generated during the workout, it would be best if everybody wears a mask,” Heinz says.
If you need to catch your breath and take your mask off for a moment, step aside, even farther away from others.
We’ll be frank, this one was hard to recommend, especially with recent news of 16 customers and 7 employees catching COVID-19 at a bar. However, restaurants are open and if you do want to take the risk, we want you to be safe. So, here’s the best way to do it.
Many restaurants are setting up outdoor dining areas on sidewalks and streets. This typically requires a reservation so restaurants can limit the number of people they’re serving at once. Look up your local guidelines so you fully understand the steps restaurants are taking to mitigate the risk of transmission.
Tables should be placed at least 10 feet apart, according to Heinz. Servers and staff should wear masks and gloves.
It’ll be tough to wear a mask while eating, so be vigilant about other precautions. To be as safe as possible, bring your own utensils and reusable straws. Restaurants will likely sanitize tables between parties, but you can always bring disinfecting wipes to give your table an extra cleaning.
Pack hand wipes or hand sanitizer since eating often involves touching your face. “You just want to really practice good hand hygiene, especially before and after you eat,” Meyer says.
And again, skip the public restroom if possible — studies have shown that the virus accumulates and hangs out in bathrooms, Heinz notes.
This isn’t always something you can carefully plan for, but if you run into this situation during the pandemic, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk of getting sick.
If you’re road-tripping to a new home, you may have to travel through different areas with varying numbers of confirmed cases of the virus. States with more confirmed cases may have stricter rules for people traveling from out of state.
“Prior to taking any road trip, you basically want to plan, plan, plan, understand where it is that you’re going,” Meyer says.
Try to minimize the number of stops you make. At rest stops, use your mask, wash your hands thoroughly, and get in and out quickly. If you’re staying at hotels along the way, do your best to keep a distance from others. Disinfect surfaces that could be contaminated, and avoid spending much time in communal areas like the lobby, fitness center, or breakfast station. Wash your hands often.
If you’re moving back into a house with others — especially older adults or people with underlying health issues — the safest thing would be to quarantine elsewhere for 14 days beforehand. That’s not always the most realistic option, so if you do move in right away, be as safe as possible: Stay in your own space for a few weeks and monitor any symptoms.
“Just understand that you might be infected and not have symptoms, and so really want to do everything you can to protect the people around you,” Meyer says.
People have been making pacts to see only each other and form what’s been called a social bubble or pod.
“I think it’s a really cool way to keep safe and healthy from COVID and reduce the risk of potential infection while also reducing the risk of the mental health strain that goes along with isolating,” Meyer says.
The challenge is who you pick, Meyer says. Have a clear chat about what it means to be in the bubble — what behaviors are allowed and what everyone can do to mitigate the risk. “Really work hard on sealing up any potential leaks in your exposure bubble prior to joining pods together,” Meyer said.
Heinz, on the other hand, doesn’t think we’re quite at the point where we can be forming bubbles or pods. We really need a vaccine or curative treatment before we can comfortably start mingling again, he says.
Though we don’t know how long recovered people have immunity for, Heinz says it’s probably OK for those who have recovered from COVID-19 to interact with each other.
“That said, these individuals can still convey virus from contaminated surfaces, so even though they likely cannot become infected again, they could still pose some risk to others in their household who have not been infected,” Heinz explains.
Even activities thought to be low risk, like camping or going to the beach, require careful planning and thoughtful safety measures.
If and when you venture out, Heinz says it’s best to assume everybody you come in contact with is carrying the virus and can potentially pass it on through respiratory droplets and contaminated surfaces (though that’s less common).
In general, stick with the people in your own household. The more people you loop into your plans, the greater the odds will be that you’ll contract or spread the coronavirus. And the more vigilant you are about washing, sanitizing, and physical distancing, the safer your experiences will be.
The key is to play it safe.
Julia Ries is an LA-based writer covering health, wellness, and life for Healthline, HuffPost, PBS, and VICE. You can see some of her work at www.juliaries.com