With states in various stages of reopening, coronavirus cases are increasing across the country. And without standardized guidelines on how we’re supposed to behave, everyone seems to be living by their own rules.
Many of us are wondering: What is actually safe to do right now? Is it safe to fly or stay at a hotel? What about a road trip? Can you go to the dentist, restaurant or gym?
HuffPost hosted a COVID-19 Q&A with Dr. Kavita Patel, HuffPost’s medical contributor and a practicing internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C., and Lindsay Holmes, HuffPost’s senior wellness editor, to get answers during this confusing time. Below are the most common questions readers asked during the event and some guidance on what to do:
Is it safe to go to restaurants right now?
Patel: While there have been no reported cases of contracting the virus from prepared food, there have been case studies of spread from people inside of restaurants, particularly those with poor air circulation. Therefore, it is reasonable to take precautions with contact in general.
It is important to make sure that any outdoor or indoor space has been observing physical distance, workers are wearing masks and washing hands. The safest option would be curbside or contactless delivery, outdoor dining next, and then limiting indoor dining to places with confidence in air circulation, etc. If you are a high-risk person, it would be safest to avoid the physical location and contact altogether.
Is it safe to go to the dentist for a cleaning?
Patel: Depends on where you live. If you are in an area with a high number of cases, I would consider delaying it. If you are in an area that has had declines, I would schedule and ask on the phone what precautions your dentist and the hygienist are taking. If you do go, I would bring hand sanitizer and a mask to your appointment, just to have if you end up waiting in a waiting area. If you can wait in your car/outside and they can text you to come in, even better.
Is it safe to go to the gym?
Patel: It will be impossible to have a guarantee that it’s safe, so I think you will have to assess the risk of going to the gym compared to what benefits outweigh the risks. You may also need to take precautions on top of what the gym is doing to make it as safe as possible (like going at a low-volume time, taking your own face mask, sanitizer and wipes to wipe down equipment, avoiding equipment near a lot of people, etc.).
Holmes: I would also say that gyms and fitness centers still pose a substantial risk right now, especially for those who are more susceptible to severe cases of COVID-19. Some experts have told us that they wouldn’t go until there’s a vaccine. You should personally assess your risk and also call the gym and ask what their health and safety measures are. But, if you’re able to, try working out from home.
Is it safe to take the subway or other public transportation?
Holmes: It’s safer to drive or walk, but that is often not an option. If you do take public transportation, try to get on a subway car with as few riders as possible. Make sure to wear a face mask, and be cautious about holding poles since they’re higher-touch surface areas. Make sure to disinfect your hands after getting off the train (carry hand sanitizer if you can), and wash your hands once you arrive at your destination for an added measure.
Is it safe to go back to work?
Patel: Depends on the case rates locally. If cases are going up or the seven-day average is high, then this is not recommended. If you have a workplace or type of work where you can’t avoid contact or in-person work, then you should also make sure that your office or building is following precautions and also being clear about how you can stay safe at work.
Is it safe to go to a salon or spa right now?
Patel: These services can be safe again if the precautions [like wearing face masks and hygienic practices] are taken. I would limit the service to those that are essential and would consider delaying optional services.
Is it safe to go swimming in an outdoor pool?
Holmes: Unfortunately, being outside in the water is not completely risk-free (neither is any activity around others, for that matter). However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that there is currently no evidence that you can contract the coronavirus from swimming in a pool.
The most important part is to maintain social distancing between yourself and people who are not in your household. Washing your hands frequently, especially after using a high-touch surface area like a railing, is also important.
Don’t share pool floats, goggles or any other swimming equipment with others. Face masks are also still recommended if you’re going to be in more public areas around other people, but should be taken off once you’re in the water (while you continue to maintain distance from others).
For traveling, is it safe to stay with other people outside of your household?
Patel: Traveling with others or staying somewhere outside your household/apartment/etc. will introduce some degree of risk, and again, the important factors are case rates or the prevalence in your area, risk precautions of the other people that you are considering going with, and if you are renting, it would be worth knowing if there is a 72-hour turnaround time to minimize contact risks with previous renters.
Is it safe to use public bathrooms?
Patel: Public bathrooms are incredibly risky given the volume of people in and out of bathrooms and the lack of disinfecting between visits. If you need to use a public bathroom, it would be wise to use personal hand wipes especially when handling doorknobs/handles surfaces, etc. Try to minimize contact with surfaces.
Is it safe to go to in-person gatherings like weddings or showers?
Holmes: Large gatherings of any kind definitely come with some level of danger. According to the CDC, “the more people an individual interacts with at a gathering and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher the potential risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and COVID-19 spreading.”
Medium to large in-person gatherings are classified as higher risk events. For this reason, I personally am not going to any big event like a wedding anytime soon.
I would encourage people to consider their own personal risk, the risk of other people they may be around (like older family members or those who are immunocompromised) and what type of traveling would be involved.
If you absolutely do insist on going, be smart. It’s important to follow your state guidelines on group sizes, wear face coverings, wash your hands and try to maintain 6 feet of distance from others at the event.
If you’re not able to socialize outside, what are the risks and precautions to take inside?
Holmes: Experts do say that being outdoors is better than being inside. If you absolutely must be indoors, make sure each person wears a face covering and keeps at least 6 feet of distance. Open your windows and blinds, and if you have control over it, make sure your air conditioning’s filtration system is in top shape or try to circulate air from the outside. Sanitize high-touch surface areas and wash your own hands regularly.
You should also limit the amount of time you spend indoors socializing with others ― the longer the interaction, the higher the risk, according to the CDC. And, of course, if you or someone you plan to hang out with is sick ― don’t do it.
Is it safe to stop wiping down groceries?
Patel: There has not been evidence of transmission of the virus from groceries. The risk is low, so I would not wash anything longer than you would normally do for protection from COVID-19.
Is it safe to go out in states where cases are spiking?
Patel: Being outside if you can socially distance and wear a mask can be safe and can be very healthy. But I would make sure that those conditions are met first.
What precautions should you take if you’re going to fly?
Patel: Airplane cooling and circulation systems are safer than you might think, so the real risk is human contact and common areas such as bathrooms on the plane and eating or drinking from a cart. I would consider bringing your own food and handling your beverages, wearing a mask, consider glasses or goggles and bring sanitizer and wipes for surfaces. Also, remember to circulate your legs in your seat to prevent blood clots.
What precautions should you take when staying at a hotel?
Patel: Call the hotel in advance and find out what their COVID-19 cleaning policies are. If you get there and it doesn’t seem to be enforced, leave and call for a refund. Ask for a room on the ground floor to avoid elevators. Wipe surfaces down with bleach wipes inside the room. Wash your own hands often.
What precautions should you take during a road trip?
Patel: Minimize stops. If you need to refill gas, use hand sanitizer and a bleach wipe to open doors, insert credit card for payment and put handles in and out of the spout. Bring food with you so you can avoid restaurants. Even in drive-thrus, you should be aware of surfaces touched, etc.
What precautions should you take when participating in protests?
Patel: I have encouraged masks, physical distancing when possible, and face shields or something to protect the eyes. And lots of hand sanitizer.
Answers have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.
If you have a COVID-19 question, email [email protected]ost.com, and our reporters may answer it in a future story.
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but it’s possible guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.