The COVID-19 pandemic continues to shut down cities across America, with many universities and businesses adapting to the need to de-densify. While the general consensus from experts is still to stay home unless absolutely necessary, some states have begun taking steps to “reopen” in an effort to stimulate the economy. Most states are doing this in phases—you can check out this interactive map by the New York Times to see the steps your state has (or hasn’t) taken to reopen so far.
So if your city is beginning to reopen, does that mean you’re totally in the clear to go back to living “normally”? Well, not quite. Going out is going to look a little different, and there’s a few habits you’ll want to practice before you head out the door:
- Avoid high-risk spots
Just because Disney World has officially reopened, that doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be first in line to go there. If you’re in an area where cases are highly concentrated (like Florida), going out is probably not the best idea right now, let alone to somewhere frequented by people traveling from outside your city.
You’ll want to be highly vigilant of how the places you want to visit are ensuring people’s safety. Many stores in my town have a sign on the door to tell customers they require people to wear face masks, and refuse entry to people who are not wearing one. This should really be a no-brainer, but unfortunately, some police departments are refusing to enforce mask laws, so you may come across restaurants, bars, or other businesses that don’t do the same due diligence. You’ll want to give those places a wide berth; it’s really not worth it to risk your own health for a drink, and anyway, do you really want to financially support a business that isn’t doing the bare minimum to prioritize health and safety?
Some spots claim to enforce mask-wearing, but with the rise of anti-maskers’ anger and even violence, a place that should be safe can quickly become high-risk. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is not following guidelines and endangering others, you should remain calm and leave the premises as soon as possible. Your safety always comes first, so don’t stick around people that could put you and others in danger for any longer than necessary.
You’ll also want to keep social distancing in mind when you go out. If, for example, you’re planning to spend a day at the beach, it’s probably smart to scope out the situation at your local beach before you start packing your sunscreen and towels. While the CDC has set out guidelines for public beaches that involve social distancing, mask-wearing, and more measures to reduce the spread of the virus, you shouldn’t be too trusting that these guidelines are being enforced. You’re better off staying home on days when beaches, bars, and other public venues can get really crowded, like weekends or holidays (some beaches had virtually no social distancing at all on the 4th of July, for example).
Another social distancing signs you should look out for? If you’re heading to a restaurant, they should be using outdoor seating, and in limited capacity—most restaurants are publicizing this information on their websites, but maybe check out a Yelp review or two to make sure.
At the end of the day, it’s your choice whether or not you go out. Just make sure you’re putting safety first, and be wary of which guidelines aren’t being followed, so you can protect yourself and those around you.
- Pack a bag
This should be obvious by now, but always, always (always!) wear a mask when you go out. It’s become a popular joke that “masks are the new car keys” — in other words, they’re the first items you should be checking off your list before you leave the house. I would go a step further and always have a backup mask on hand, just in case.
Some other things you’ll want to have on hand? Alcohol-based hand sanitizer, for one (almost all stores I’ve been to have a bottle at the entrance or the counter, but you can never be too careful—more on that below). Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol is most effective for killing viruses, but you should avoid sanitizers that could be contaminated with methanol, a toxic substance that can be life-threatening, according to the FDA. Unfortunately, methanol isn’t always listed on the label, but the FDA has a “do-not-use list” so you know which sanitizers to steer clear of. Consider bringing some hand lotion too, since the frequent hand-washing we’re all doing can lead to uncomfortable, dry skin.
It’s also not a bad idea to have a travel-size container of wipes with you, in case you want to treat any surfaces or objects you might have to touch with a little extra care, like handles or poles on public transportation, should you need to take it. You can also use them to wipe your phone down if you ever put it somewhere that’s not your pocket or your purse.
If you want to be really safe, consider throwing in a pair of gloves, too. Gloves aren’t always necessary—the CDC mostly recommends wearing them while cleaning or caring for the sick—but if you still want the protection, opt for a pair of washable gloves instead of disposable ones. As Glamour points out, you don’t want to contribute to PPE shortages in hospitals by hoarding disposable gloves for your own use. Gloves can get contaminated as easily as bare hands (basically, as soon as you touch something), so you should really only use them for a brief time before switching them out (and don’t reuse dirty gloves!).
Just like you wouldn’t with your bare hands, don’t touch your face with your gloves. Make sure you remove them without touching your bare skin as well; you can follow these step-by-step instructions. You might decide that gloves aren’t worth the hassle for you, which is fair—either way, you still need to wash your hands frequently.
- Know how often to clean your hands
When pretty much anything you touch can be a host for germs, it’s hard to know how often you really need to be washing your hands. The CDC recommends cleaning your hands “after you have been in a public place and touched an item or surface that may be frequently touched by other people, such as door handles, tables, gas pumps, shopping carts, or electronic cashier registers/screens, etc.”
Even if you’re just making a pit stop at your favorite coffee shop, you’ll be surprised by how much stuff you touch in just a few minutes, and how many germs you could inevitably be picking up in the process. Obviously, you’re not always in close proximity to an available sink, so you might have to rely on hand sanitizer. A good rule of thumb is to use it once before you enter a store, and again after you leave. This, by the way, is in addition to all the other times you should be washing your hands: you can check out this factsheet by the CDC to see the full list of situations, which includes after coughing, before eating or preparing food, and more.
- Keep your circle small
There’s been a lot of talk about “expanding your bubble” as reopening conversations have started: can you hang out with (and even hug) your friends again?
Well, it’s probably not the best idea, according to the Atlantic. Each new person you decide to hang out with brings their own health risks to the table (and most have their own loved ones at home to protect as well). That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see them at all, but if you’re going to, there’s certain precautions you should take.
Studies have shown that people are more likely to get infected indoors versus outdoors, so you’re better off opting for a hangout outside. Being outside also probably gives you more space to socially distance, so that you and your friends can be the recommended six feet apart—so no, having your group meet up to crowd around a restaurant table is not exactly a great plan right now. It’s also a good idea to limit the number of people you’re going to hang out with; the more people you come into contact with, the higher the risk of getting infected. So keep your invite list small, make sure everyone is wearing a mask, and avoid touching each other or each other’s things (sorry, no hugs).
At the end of the day, face-to-face contact with your friends may be a lot of fun, but it doesn’t come without risks. In the meantime, why not have some virtual quality time instead?
- Go to the bathroom before you leave
Look, just trust me on this one. A lot of places might not be allowing customers to use their restrooms, and even if you do find an available public restroom, you really don’t know how well it’s been cleaned. Better to cut that problem off before you’re out of the house.
With these tips in mind, you don’t have to feel guilty about starting to go out as your city reopens. Just be smart, stay vigilant, and make sure you’re prepared, so you can enjoy a day out without risking your own – or anyone else’s – health and safety.