Do you still own clothes that aren’t sweat pants? Dust them off, because you can now leave home and go somewhere besides the grocery store for the first time in two months.
With the expiration Monday of Governor Charlie Baker’s stay-at-home advisory and the unveiling of a reopening plan, Massachusetts residents can now make plans to visit hair salons, beaches, some offices, and houses of worship. You’re even allowed to have “limited” play dates, for yourself and your kids.
But with newfound freedoms come new, difficult decisions about how to protect yourself and others. How worried should you be about passing unmasked runners, taking the T, or seeing friends?
We asked several public health experts about how to best adapt to life in the Coronaverse. Their main advice: proceed with caution.
“People need to understand that they — not the government, but they — carry the success of this [reopening] plan in their personal actions,” said Dr. Sarah Fortune, chair of the immunology and infectious disease department at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Baker’s new statewide advisory, called “Safer at Home," calls for people to leave home only for health care, worship, and permitted work, shopping, and outdoor activities. Gatherings remain limited to fewer than 10 people, except for religious services, which must be held at 40 percent of capacity.
“The state has put together capacity” for testing and tracking the virus’s spread, Fortune said. “Now what is going to dictate success and our ability to move towards even more openings is how well we all adhere to these guidelines.”
Don’t let up on the basics: hand hygiene, masks, and distancing
Epidemiologists say the fundamentals of slowing the virus’s spread remain the same. Wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth. Limit the number of people you see, and stay at least 6 feet apart. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face.
“What I would advise the public to do is really reinforce the tool kit that we now have available to us to slow the spread,” said Dr. David Brown, chief of emergency medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Fortune agreed, adding that people should call a doctor and self-quarantine at the first sign of symptoms.
“If we do all that,” Fortune said, “We will really, really limit transmission.”
As for riding the MBTA, experts were divided. While some felt the crowded, enclosed spaces were a recipe for super-spreading, Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, said that as long as people are careful about washing their hands immediately after traveling, the limited duration of public transit rides doesn’t seem too risky, at least judging from South Korean data.
Keep outings with others short, small, masked, outdoors, and consider adding a fire
Baker’s advisory asks parents to “limit” play dates for children, and to refrain from visiting friends or family who are seniors or at high risk for COVID-19.
Epidemiologists said it’s key to limit the amount of time spent with people who aren’t part of your household, and to keep get-togethers small and outdoors, and keep masks on, even though the state requires them outside only when the 6-foot barrier can’t be kept.
A COVID-19 infection arises not just from being near someone who’s infected, but from being near them for long enough to inhale an “infectious dose” of their viral particles, said Erin Bromage, an immunology professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth who has written in detail about COVID risks.
Being outdoors is important, epidemiologists said, because it’s much more difficult for the droplets to accumulate in the air someone else inhales. If you must be inside, keep windows and doors open with lots of outdoor air circulating, Bromage said.
People often worry about contracting COVID at the grocery store or from an unmasked jogger on the sidewalk, but those interactions are typically so short that an infectious dose is unlikely, unless someone sneezes or coughs, Bromage said.
Bromage said he has entertained friends one-on-one in his front yard. His friends bring their own chairs and beers and sit at least 6 feet away. There is no sharing food or drinks.
“We’re social animals,” he said. “You’ve got to see your friends.”
Bromage said a bit of creativity and planning can help make interactions even safer. He suggested you place a large object — like a table or fire pit — between friends or families to help everyone keep their distance. Fire pits come with an added benefit: They may sterilize the air around the fire or create a draft so the groups don’t share the same air.
“You won’t find a scientific publication on that anywhere,” Bromage said. “But the chance of virus transmitting from you to the person on the other side is so, so low.”
Helen Jenkins, a Boston University biostatistics professor, agreed that keeping gatherings outdoors was crucial.
“We’re keen to see our friends as well, and our children are keen to see their friends,” Jenkins said. “Over the summer, we might arrange a picnic in a park and try and sit a decent distance apart.”
But beware: not all epidemiologists feel comfortable meeting friends just yet. Scarpino said he wanted to see the state’s infection numbers get much lower before being social in person again.
“It’s one thing if you interact with someone for two or three minutes 6 feet away,” Scarpino said. “It’s very different if you sit down with a group of friends for an hour. Do you actually maintain 6 feet the whole time? Do you not touch the front of your mask incorrectly? It’s hard to keep yourself and others protected.”
Know your workplace’s and local businesses’ safety plans
Under Baker’s guidelines, businesses are required to have a plan for protecting workers’ and customers’ safety.
People should feel empowered to request those plans to decide if they feel comfortable working or spending time at an establishment, said Dr. David Hamer, an infectious disease expert at Boston Medical Center and professor at Boston University.
Hamer advised that a good plan would include protocols for hand hygiene, reducing congestion, and keeping surfaces clean and people physically distant. “Seeing that those policies are clear, and then actually seeing them in action would be reassuring,” he said.
Scarpino added he felt more confident ordering takeout from restaurants that publicly said their employees received paid sick leave. Most importantly, he said, maintain vigilance.
“The lockdown fatigue is real," Scarpino said. "It’s mentally taxing on all of us, and we just need to be prepared as much as we can.”