For two months we’ve done meetings from home on Skype or Zoom, we’ve been locked out of our favorite restaurants and retail stores, haven’t seen our relatives, and have been long overdue for haircuts. But with the state’s COVID-19 numbers trending downward, last weekend saw businesses across the state begin to reopen. Phase one was declared, and with new guidelines and restrictions in place, New Orleans Mayor La Toya Cantrell said the faucet had been turned back on, but not yet at “high stream.”
Dr. Joe Kanter, assistant state health officer for the Louisiana Department of Health, told The Lens that during phase one, which is scheduled to last until at least early June, residents will have to continue to be extremely cautious.
“Families are going to have to make responsible choices for themselves,” said Kanter. “And, during Phase One, high risk people still shouldn’t be going out.”
So as we all sit around rating our risks for various activities during this phased reopening, there are some basic tenets with which to arm ourselves before heading out into the fray. And with a little help from our infectious disease and epidemiological panel of experts, we can all better navigate the great unknown — until such time as we have a viable treatment or vaccine.
Generally, outdoors is always better than indoors for activities. Winds blow viral particles around making them less likely to land on your face. Shorter periods of time with friends is better than lengthier times simply because of less potential exposure. And wearing a mask is always safer than not to protect others. Scientists believe that a large percentage of people may be or may have been asymptomatic carriers. And it’s much tougher to spread viral particles when your mask is a buffer.
“There are four basic questions you need to ask yourself before you venture into any situation during this pandemic,” explained Dr. Susan Hassig, associate professor of epidemiology at the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. “For ease of remembering, we have three ‘D’s and a ‘B.’ Distance is the first thing to remember … always at least six feet away from anyone who isn’t part of your lockdowned family. Density is the second factor to consider. The reason we have occupancy limitations on businesses reopening is so that we don’t have people crammed together. If you find yourself in a store which is ignoring occupancy regulations, leave — and then call 3-1-1 and report them.”
Hassig’s third “D” is for disinfecting
“That means that if you’re touching surfaces which are being touched by others, or if others have been in your house even briefly, disinfect surfaces after everyone leaves,” she said. “And, lastly, the ‘B’ stands for Barrier. If you work somewhere or are forced to be in a situation where you have constant face-to-face time with strangers, as in a cashier at a grocery store, or in a factory where you’re in close proximity to other workers, a barrier of some sort [like plexiglass] is essential to prevent contaminated droplets and aerosolized particles from spreading.”
Now that we have the broad rules to follow, we asked our experts to weigh in on levels of risk associated with some of the most popular activities that people have been wondering about relative to the safety and potential risk of each.
With Memorial Day fast approaching, how about a backyard barbecue with approximately 15 people, consisting of family friends?
“This can be tricky,” said Dr. Benjamin Springgate, chief of community and population at LSU Health, New Orleans School of Medicine. “Backyard barbecues which involve children automatically mean it becomes riskier. And after a beer or two, the next thing you know, people are no longer social distancing, and if they are eating and drinking, most likely not wearing masks.”
“With 15 people, it’s likely to be multiple households,” Hassig said. “Laughing and drinking without masks. I’d have to say hell no.”
Outdoors: Beaches and parks
Beaches are now open with varying degrees of restrictions on the East and West coasts. But the beaches along the Gulf Coast in Mississippi and Alabama have opened without beach and sand restrictions, but with social distancing mandated. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey’s “Safer at Home” order, which went into effect on May 11, does not place limits on the size of beach gatherings but calls for beachgoers to maintain six feet of distance. (The order expires on Friday afternoon. Ivey has yet to make an announcement about whether the state will loosen restrictions or extend them.) Beaches in counties along the Mississippi coast are also open allowing no groups larger than ten.
If the Florida panhandle is where you’re headed, its regulations are decided county by county, and with some restricted hours.
These beaches will be a test-run for the future after spring-breakers in Florida ignored any sort of social distancing, causing an uptick in cases. So, how safe is the beach?
Maintaining distance between household groups is important at the beach, Hassig said. “Once you get into the water, all bets might be off. Salt water and UV rays do not protect you.”
“Outdoors is helpful because of wind and air circulation in which viral droplets would disperse,” Springgate said. “Establish your own island of security on the beach and your risk is low.”
Parks, meanwhile, are generally safe places to get out and get some exercise. Most people don’t want to run with a mask on, and it’s unnecessary, Hassig said.
“This meets all the criteria for being safe,” said Hassig. You’re distanced from others, and you’re outdoors in fresh air. As long as you don’t stop to chat with old friends and keep moving, no problem.”
Everyone wants to support our struggling restaurant industry. So, what do you need to know before making the decision to enter an indoor restaurant in our city?
In the city of New Orleans, restaurants and other businesses are required to ensure that their customers are wearing masks when not eating. That is encouraged, but not required, in other parts of the state. Both Springgate and Hassig said that customers should wear masks when possible.
“I will preface this by saying that I want to fully support our restaurant industry, but indoor restaurants are associated with risks,” Springgate said. “Until such time as we have a better understanding of ventilation systems, the levels of filtration necessary and what sort of air flow is necessary to be safe, dining inside comes with a certain amount of risk — especially when people are not wearing masks because they’re eating and drinking.”
“I would highly recommend that if you choose to go to a restaurant, you really try to protect the servers who are most at risk from you,” Hassig said. “Wear a mask until your food comes to protect others from you and your risk is at a moderate to intermediate level.”
Indoor religious services
Many have missed their places of worship, and depending upon where you live, the rules are different. Orleans Parish only allows 25 percent of parishioners, or 100 people, whichever is less. What’s involved in going back to your church or synagogue safely?
“There are a lot of variables here,” Springgate said. “At 100 people inside, it really depends upon how they have arranged to space people out. And I would say that the parishioners should wear masks. The best scenario is obviously an outdoor service where fresh air is plentiful and distancing is easier.”
“After we saw what happened with one person in a choir infecting 52 others, no one should be singing at a religious service without masks,” Hassig said. (The city of New Orleans has banned choirs at religious services during the current phase of reopening.) “With masks, I’d say the risk is low to moderate.”
Entertaining friends at home
There have been lots of questions about having people inside our homes now that we’re in phase one. And as with anything else, the risk level depends on how careful you and your guests are.
Let’s say you want to have your Book Club members over, with a maximum of 10 people, who will now be using your bathroom. There will be wine and hors d’oeuvres served.
“You’ll need a pretty big room to accommodate ten people, and space them six feet apart,” Springgate said. “And, you’ll need to do this because people are without masks while they are eating and drinking. I would suggest you know the people who are invited and know how exposed they’ve been in the last few weeks. After that National Academy of Sciences report last week about mouth droplets staying in the air for between six and eighteen minutes, it’s no time to let down your guard.”
“You’re serving wine and that’s an inhibition reducer, so the next thing you know people are moving around and not social distancing,” Hassig said. “Ten people means many different households, all of which come with inherent risks. And if people are using your bathroom, have Clorox or Lysol wipes inside so they can wipe off door handles and faucet knobs after they are done. When your book club friends leave, disinfect the bathroom yourself. All in all, this is a moderate to intermediate risk, depending upon how well everyone follows the rules.
With the summer fast approaching, many families are considering air travel again. We’ve now heard that planes are leaving the tarmac completely full, as airlines are consolidating flights to optimize profits. Virologist Joseph Fair, recently a patient at Tulane Medical Center claims he was on a full plane between New York and New Orleans and was exposed, probably through his eyes. So, should you be traveling? In a recent Washington Post column, Joseph Allen, professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard, said it’s safer than we might think.
“That article evaluates the risk if you’re wearing a mask, and they’re pretty low,” said Springgate. “But it’s important to note that everyone must participate, and airlines cannot mandate that you keep your mask on for the entire flight, because if someone removes his or her mask mid-flight, they don’t want to have to divert a flight to get them off the plane. Contracting the virus through your eyes is very uncommon but not impossible because the eyes are a mucus membrane and are connected through tear ducts anatomically to airways. … But this would be rare.”
“It’s impossible to know exactly how anyone really contracts this virus, when they’ve been so many different places,” Hassig said.“That said, this has to be a group effort to be effective. Individual choices affect everyone. Considering everything, air filtration systems on airplanes are sophisticated and designed to isolate airflow. Therefore, your risk by wearing a mask is lower than you think.”
Grocery stores are safer than ever with many providing hand sanitizer at the door, spraying down check-out conveyor belts and monitoring crowd size. In New Orleans, grocery stores, like restaurants, are required to enforce the mask requirement for customers and staff.
The experts stressed that if we want to escalate to the second phase of reopening, it’s important to mask up and protect those who are serving us in the various businesses now open. They are most at risk as they’re bombarded with a steady stream of customers.
“Nothing is 100 percent safe, as there’s a risk the moment you leave your house,” said Kanter. “But, we can certainly reduce the risks. It’s incumbent upon all of us to be as safe as we can, thereby protecting ourselves and everyone else.”