“Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart from others in public. And stay home if you can.”
The Texas Governor’s Office issued an updated Executive Order on June 26, closing bars and certain other businesses and reducing indoor restaurant capacity to 50% around the state.
In light of these new recommendations for Texas and a growing number of other states seeing dramatic, recent increases in COVID-19 cases, how advisable is it to go through with July 4th cookout plans, gatherings with family members outside your immediate household, and other activities that make summertime so much fun?
“The top three factors contributing to virus transmission have to do with how many people you are around, how close you are and for how long,” said Dr. Diana Cervantes, HSC Assistant Professor and Director, MPH Epidemiology Program. “Smaller periods of time around small groups of people are less risky.”
If you’re partying outside, with good air circulation, there is less concern, she noted, but the more time you spend around others, especially when alcohol is involved, the more people can lose inhibitions and neglect safe social distancing.
“It’s hard to rate any activity as high, medium or low risk, as it all depends on the situation,” the epidemiologist said.
In general, distancing outdoors in groups of 10 or less is better, and it’s important to not share food, drinks, utensils or cups.
That means no bowl of potato salad with a giant serving spoon; no snack platters of burgers, hot dogs or chips where everyone can dig in; no shared lemonade jugs or iced tea pitchers; or other similar setups.
Paper plates and plastic utensils are a really good option, although Dr. Cervantes said it’s okay to bring out your own too, as long as there’s no sharing and you wash them well afterward.
Disposable party cups are pretty much a staple of outdoor gatherings anyway, and they work well to keep germs from spreading, especially if everyone writes their name on the cup.
Should people bring their own food?
“COVID-19 has not been shown to be a foodborne virus, so that shouldn’t be an issue,” Dr. Cervantes said.
Is it risky for party guests to come inside for the bathroom?
“That shouldn’t be a problem, as long as you’re doing routine cleaning and washing your hands,” Dr. Cervantes said. “There is potential to pick up germs from surfaces, so good handwashing is very important.”
Many people have found that having a small safety network of specific people they come in contact with – others who are not taking unnecessary risks or going many places beyond quick trips to the store for essential items – can relieve stress and loneliness and help them feel more positive right now.
“It’s good for your own mental health to engage safely with the people who are close and important to you,” Dr. Cervantes said. “Just don’t mix groups, and be open in your conversations about others that your networks may be in contact with, including through their jobs, roommates and other conditions.”
“The higher risk is being around people you don’t know, or even large groups of people you do know, for prolonged periods of time.”
Much of the summer guidance for communities remains the same as over the last few months:
· If you must grocery shop in a store, go on a weekday when it’s less likely to be crowded; wear a mask; wash your hands before and after and again when you get home; and don’t linger, as every moment you’re there increases your potential risk.
· Try to not obsess too much – if someone just walks past you without a mask, that’s a very low risk, Dr. Cervantes said.
· Being closer than six feet to someone else in public for 15 minutes or more is high risk. “At a salon and in similar situations, the conditions can stack on top of each other the longer you’re there and the more you engage,” she said. “Evaluate what the business is doing to minimize risk and how transparent their precautions are.”
· How helpful are gloves? “Gloves can give you a false sense of security – they get just as dirty as your hands, and then what do you do with them afterward? They are not impenetrable – germs can still get in through micro tears in the material, so don’t completely rely on them. If you’re washing your hands well, including under the fingernails, they’re not really necessary,” she said.
· How safe are playgrounds, amusement parks and water parks? “Social distancing in these situations is hard, even if facilities are doing their best to reduce the risk, and you have no way of knowing all the people you’ll come in
contact with, or their levels of exposure. I would avoid these types of activities right now,” Dr. Cervantes said.
“We all remain susceptible to COVID-19, and it’s likely to stay with us for a while, even though it seems like a lifetime since it first became a global health crisis,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot but we are still learning, both about the immediate effects and the longer-term impacts the disease can have, including potential chronic health conditions later down the road.”
“For me right now, and for my family, if a situation involves too many people, being too close to each other for too much time, I’m out,” Dr. Cervantes said.