Go Out, Visit Friends and Have Fun!
COVID-19 Socialization is the natural outcome of the previous two blogs, which treated coronavirus spreading and how to safely shop for groceries. We’ll extend what we have learned by treating many more activities that we all are dying to do. (Hopefully, not literally.)
What About All the OTHER Activities We Long For?
Groceries are a necessity. But food is not the only thing we crave. Even in the day of COVID-19, socialization is what we most desire.
The social activities we want range from the very safe to the very uncertain. I say “uncertain” rather than “risky” because we still understand COVID-19 so poorly that we cannot predict or properly measure the level of risk.
The situation depends on where you live and where you are going. So we’ll separately discuss Local Activities and those that involve Travel.
Even if you stay in your local area, you will be pushed one way and the other by conflicting advice. Healthcare professionals, who took an oath to protect your life, will err on the side of caution. Those who are tired of restrictions, or who desperately need a way to earn income, will advocate (sometimes forcefully) openness and laissez faire. Only you can decide what is “safe enough” for you and your loved ones. And only you can decide when COVID-19 socialization is OK.
All of us want to learn what we can about the virus, but we are most strongly influenced by the voices whom we trust. And because the choice of voices is a very personal one, when we venture out we will find a mixture of super-safe people and devil-may-care people, all mingling together. We have to decide how best to navigate that melange.
Should you wear a mask and glasses when you go out? If you will be passing close to many people, it’s a really good idea. Even if they are not wearing masks, you’ll be protecting yourself to some degree.
Recent research confirms that even a homemade mask can significantly reduce the spread of infection. And it protects the wearer if it hugs closely to the face so that you breathe through it rather than around it.
If you’re the only one wearing a mask, be gracious. The non-mask-wearers may not intend to offend you or to strut their virility. Some people cannot breathe well through a mask; and others find it intolerably hot or claustrophobic. Simply give those people a wide berth. And I would also say, if you choose not to wear a mask, please don’t take offense at those who do; they may not be spineless wimps. They may be trying to protect a vulnerable loved one in their home.
Où Sont Les Toilettes?
Many of the things we want to do will keep us out of the house for an hour, or several hours. So when we go out for COVID-19 socialization, we need to plan ahead concerning the call of nature.
Obviously, we should visit the bathroom before we go out. But we also need to be ready in case we have to visit an unfamiliar sanitary venue. Fortunately, we’re pretty well covered if we have an alcohol-based hand sanitizer in a pocket or purse and use it obsessively:
- Sanitize your hands and try to enter the rest room without touching the door with your palms. But if you have to touch it, then sanitize again once you’re inside.
- If you need a booth, enter the booth and sanitize your hands once again. Spray the toilet seat and dry it with toilet paper.
- When you finish, wash well with soap and water, then depart.
- If you have to touch the door on the way out, sanitize your hands once again.
Experts believe that coronavirus may be contracted by touching feces, so if you touch any surface in a public rest room, you should assume that your hands carry infection until you wash or sanitize them. And to be on the safe side, make sure your hands are clean before they come near your private parts. Don’t risk what we don’t yet know.
Now we’ll discuss a variety of COVID-19 socialization activities, progressively less and less safe.
Totally Safe: (put your Zoom to work!)
- Socializing, working and collaborating electronically.
- Online education.
- Video consultation with healthcare providers.
- Restaurant take-out, either delivered or for pickup.
- Other retail businesses where you can order online or by phone, then pick up with “no touch.”
- COVID-19 socialization using distance. In suitable weather, several families can meet in someone’s big back yard or at a local park. Form into clusters that are 8 to 10 feet apart, where each cluster consists of people in the same household. Each group brings its own food and drink. Music might be nice too!
- Outdoor exercise. You can run, bicycle, hike, golf or do yoga in the company of a few friends. But if you are exerting yourselves, thereby pumping lots of aerosols into the air, be sure to stay far apart. I think 10 feet is a reasonable goal for more energetic activities.
- Boating, Kayaking, Canoeing. Your area may allow water sports with restrictions. The restrictions might specify how many persons not living together may be on the same boat, and how close one boat may be to another.
- Indoor Exercise. If you’re in a sparsely occupied gym with good ventilation, it’s not too dangerous. But remember that exercise causes heavy breathing, which ups the aerosol count. If you can’t stay well separated from others, sanitize your hands, wear a face mask and glasses, and try to minimize your time in the gym.
- The Beach. Part of the joy of going to the beach is the buzz of activity, many people enjoying the sun and surf at the same time. You’re not going to wear a face mask and get a funny-looking tan line, and neither is anyone else. But generally, there’s a good breeze to blow away droplets, and lots of virus-killing sunshine. And no one will think you look funny for wearing sunglasses. Just pick a beach, or a spot on the beach, where you can try to keep a big distance from other family groups.
- Restaurant Dining. Read the restaurant’s website in advance to see whether they describe any of their cleaning and disinfecting procedures, especially hand-washing. Check their menu and tentatively decide what you will order, to reduce your time at the table. If the weather is nice, try to patronize a restaurant with outdoor tables (one study showed 19 times lower risk outdoors compared with indoors).
If you eat indoors, you want to see tables well separated, at least the iconic six feet. Servers should have nose and mouth covered; since patrons are eating, we don’t expect them to cover their faces. Note added July 11, 2020: Please! Eat at a quiet restaurant, and preferably one with HEPA-filtered air. See today’s Attend to Aerosols note added to the COVID-19 Safety blog.
I recommend going to a restaurant where you can reserve a table, and which will seat you close to your reserved time. If you have to wait a while for your table, ask the restaurant to let you wait outside or in your car; they can text you when they are ready to seat you. Once inside, minimize your time. Yes, I know that dining enjoyment calls for a leisurely pace. But if you spend one hour in the restaurant rather than two and a half hours, you have reduced your personal risk by 60%, which is nothing to (ahem) sneeze at!
- Retail Stores. If the store is in a shopping mall, check the mall’s website to see whether they seem sufficiently safety-conscious. Plan your shopping in advance so as to minimize your time. Try to avoid stores which look crowded. Use your hand sanitizer before and after trying on clothes or touching anything.
- Schools and Colleges. Local sources and their websites will help you see what steps they are taking to keep their venues safe.
- Religious Services. If the group is limiting attendance so that people can spread out, that’s an important plus. Note that singing and congregation responses put a lot of droplets into the air, so you’re better off if there are few of those. If the congregants are willing to wear face masks, that’s even better. But whether anyone else does or not, you should wear a face mask and glasses if you want to feel safe.
- Outdoor Sporting Events / Concerts. This is a tough case for COVID-19 socialization. In principle, a promoter might sell only a small portion of the seats in a large venue. However, that won’t provide enough revenue for many events. Moreover, many people will crowd into the closest seats and that probably cannot be controlled. If you are willing and able to sit far from the stage, you may be in a safe bubble of isolation for most of the event duration. However, you will still be close to a large number of people as you arrive, as you leave, and in the rest rooms.
- Indoor Sporting Events / Concerts. This one is also difficult. Some audiences may accept sparse seating that maintains distancing. However, an indoor venue is inherently riskier because they are recycling the same air over and over. And that air may carry aerosols that stay suspended through the entire event. Moreover, as in the case of outdoor concerts, if they don’t sell many tickets they may not be able to put on a wonderful event.
- Crowded venues, both indoor and outdoor. Bars. Festivals. And so on. (If my ranking frustrates you, a recent article gives confirmation.)
By travel, we mean a trip involving one or more overnights in rented quarters. Some specific comments follow.
- Travel By Car. Travel by car is safe from infection so long as you remain in your car. However, you will need to leave the car to re-fuel, for meals and for rest room visits. You will encounter many strangers at unfamiliar locations where you have no information about local hygiene practices. Take along masks and a good supply of hand sanitizer, and use them frequently.
- Travel By Airplane (or Train, or Bus). You will be cooped up in close quarters with dozens or hundreds of people whom you don’t know. Their health status and health habits are unknown. And you are breathing recirculated air. However, travel providers are stepping up their game, so you will find that their websites describe cleaning and disinfecting in detail. Your time en route is just a few hours, and all of your exposure is to the same small group of people. [Note added July 11, 2020: In addition, while you are on an airplane, your air is localized and HEPA-filtered and therefore reasonably safe.] So your total risk is probably no more than that during a several-day driving trip. Again, masks and sanitizer.
- At Your Hotel or Rental Accommodation. Once you’re at your destination, then what? In advance, you should read what your accommodation operator has to say about cleaning and disinfection, and see whether it reassures you. If it’s an established business and they offer convincing detail, you can feel safe, because they do not want to be held liable if you get sick. If they do not persuade you, cancel and rent somewhere else.
- Travel by Cruise Ship or River Boat. These venues are inherently crowded, especially for the crew members. Therefore, they are potential hotbeds of infection from which you cannot easily escape. DO NOT cruise until COVID-19 vaccinations are available, and you have also been vaccinated yourself!
The Reproduction Number and the Future
I feel confident that the virus will be brought to heel, and that the economic pain caused by its control will eventually fade. However, before that happens people will die, businesses will fail and families will face financial ruin. How can we reduce these terrible outcomes?
The driving factor is the virus reproduction number R (also referred to as R0, R0, R(t) or “R-naught”). R is the number of people each infected person will infect. If R is less than one, the virus eventually dies out, because it cannot live except within an infected person (or animal). If R is greater than one, the number of cases grows exponentially and may overwhelm medical facilities.
Reproduction number R can’t be directly measured, it has to be calculated from various models of disease spreading. When there is widespread testing of people without symptoms, that data will make the models more accurate. Without protection, R can vary widely, from below 1 in rural areas to as high as 4.0 in UK.
Reducing the Reproduction Number R
What does it take to reduce R?
• Eventually, after the virus infects enough people, those who recover will be resistant to re-infection, so that reduces the effective R. However, that’s a do-nothing strategy that leads to greater loss of life.
• When we have an effective vaccine and many people are vaccinated, R will go down because fewer people will become infected. But that has not yet happened.
However, there are immediate actions we can take that reduce the probability of infection, and therefore reduce R:
• Wearing a face mask: a hospital-grade N95 mask reduces risk of infection by 95%; but even simple masks can still give 67% protection.
• Wearing eye protection: eye protection can reduce risk by 78%.
• Social distancing: 3 feet of separation reduces risk of infection by 82%; 6 feet, by 91%; and 9 feet, by 95%.
Even a face mask alone significantly controls the virus. A University of Cambridge study estimated that if only 50% of people routinely use face masks, it would be enough to reduce R to less than 1.0.
Note added June 27, 2020: As previously noted, the face mask protects the wearer only if they are breathing through it rather than around it. It’s easy to test the fit of your face mask if it’s made of a flexible material such as paper or cloth. When you inhale, you should feel the mask snuggle closer against your face. That sensation confirms that you are protecting yourself.
Yes, these rules infringe upon our personal freedom and get in the way of activities that we long for. But if we take some or all of these precautions, we will protect our health and the health of those whom we care about. And we only need to pay this small price temporarily, until the virus fades to just a memory.