As states in the U.S. start to relax restrictions intended to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it can feel like people are responding with an all-or-nothing approach: Either you stay locked in your house alone, or you’re at a party with a hundred maskless strangers.
But those aren’t the only choices, says Neil Maniar, a professor of the practice and director of Northeastern’s Master of Public Health program.
While the country is not ready to get back to normal, in places where the current outbreak is trending downward, public health officials are offering people ways to safely start going out.
“People have been quarantined for over two months and it’s just human nature to be itching to get out and start to do things,” Maniar says. But, he cautions, “we cannot underestimate how dangerous and how transmissible this virus is.”
“Just because things are opening up, and just because it’s okay to engage in certain activities, does not mean that the risk has disappeared,” Maniar says. “People need to continue to be vigilant about this pandemic and about this virus.”
That means you should always wear a mask when you’re outside, make sure you maintain proper distance from others around you, and take other public health precautions such as washing your hands and avoiding touching your face. And listen to what your local health authorities are saying about the coronavirus.
“There are still a lot of hotspots around the country,” Maniar says. “People should really follow the guidance of their local and state public health departments, because this varies a lot from one state to the next.”
Do I really need to wear a mask everywhere?
In short? Yes.
“The mask is reducing the amount of virus particles that are emitted into the air,” Maniar says. “It’s more about reducing that amount, as opposed to protecting yourself.”
The virus spreads through tiny droplets in the air, expelled when you cough, sneeze, sing, laugh, or speak. If someone breathes in those droplets, or touches a surface where those droplets recently landed and then touches their nose or mouth, they can become infected.
Most homemade masks aren’t great at keeping virus particles away from the wearer, but they are good at catching those particles sprayed out as the wearer breathes and talks.
The mask protects the people around you.
“If a person who is infectious is not wearing a mask, and the other person is wearing a mask, there is still a significant risk of transmission,” Maniar says. “If both people are wearing a mask, you have a dramatically lower risk of infection. It goes from somewhere around 70 percent down to about 5 percent. So it’s really significant.”
What is the safest way to see my friends and family?
Outside, with a small number of people, at a distance, wearing masks.
“You don’t want to throw a party with 25 of your friends or go to a crowded bar,” Maniar says. “But if you’re sitting six to 10 feet apart, wearing masks, it’s okay to get together with someone.”
Meeting out in the open is the safer option, as air movement can help keep the virus from lingering.
“The droplets that contain the viral particles can hang in the air for a while,” Maniar says. “If you’re in a poorly ventilated environment, if you’re in a closed environment where those droplets are going to hang in the air for longer, then you’re going to increase your likelihood of infection.”
Being outside also gives you more space to spread out. Six feet is the minimum distance you should be from someone, Maniar says, but studies have shown that a cough or sneeze can send viral particles farther.
“You don’t need to take out a measuring tape,” Maniar says. “You should feel like you are at least six feet apart. If you’re ten feet apart, that’s even better.”
What about kids? Can they start having playdates? Do they need to be wearing masks?
Unfortunately, children should be taking the same precautions that adults are. It’s just more difficult, Maniar says.
“As adults, we need to monitor their activity and make sure that they’re, to the best that they can, practicing ‘social distancing’ (being six feet apart), that they’re wearing their masks,” Maniar says. “But kids are going to be kids, and it’s going to be hard.”
Is it okay to get a haircut?
“In full disclosure, I’m getting a haircut on Friday because I tried cutting my own hair and it went horribly,” Maniar says.
Which doesn’t mean there’s zero risk to it, of course. If you’re going to get a haircut, make sure the proper precautions are in place. Are the chairs at least six feet apart? Is the person who will be cutting your hair wearing a mask and sterilizing between customers? You should also be wearing a mask (try to find one you won’t have to remove during the haircut!) and thoroughly wash your hands afterwards.
“You want to make sure that you’re cautious and that the establishment is cautious,” Maniar says. “If places are doing it properly and thoughtfully and carefully, hopefully it’s relatively safe. But you can never guarantee that, because we know there are people who are infectious who show no signs or symptoms of the disease.”
Can I go to a restaurant?
Takeout is still your safest option here. But if you want to eat out, restaurants with well-spaced outdoor seating are less risky than an indoor option, Maniar says.
“There are places that are opening up, and I think it’s an individual decision whether people want to do that with indoor restaurants,” Maniar says. “If there’s a restaurant where you have really good ventilation, where there’s significant distancing between tables, where people at a given table can be appropriately far from one another, then, again, based on state and local recommendations, I think it’s one of those things where it depends on the comfort level of an individual.”
Maniar says creating and maintaining a safe environment for dining indoors at restaurants is critical, because “unless somebody can figure this one out—you can’t eat with a mask on.
Do I need to be this careful if I’m young and healthy?
Yes. And not just to keep from spreading the virus to others.
“People who are young and healthy can get very sick from this,” Maniar says. “And there’s nothing that really differentiates, right now, who definitely will and who definitely won’t.”
Early on in the outbreak, it seemed that children couldn’t get sick from this virus and that young people tended to have mild cases. But that thinking has changed, Maniar says.
There have been a significant number of hospitalizations of relatively young and healthy people in the U.S., and the debilitating symptoms can linger for months, Maniar says. Researchers are still learning about the long-term effects of the disease.
There is also concern that the coronavirus is linked to a serious inflammatory disease appearing in young children.
“We know that people who have certain risk factors, such as underlying chronic illness, are at significantly greater risk of a poor outcome from COVID-19,” Maniar says. “But for people who don’t really have any of the risk factors, there’s still a risk, and we are still trying to fully understand exactly what will lead to one person totally escaping unscathed, and another one winding up in the hospital.”