Since the coronavirus blockage began in the U.S., most Americans have drastically changed their patterns: follow instructions to stay at home, limit almost all contact with others, and go out for essential travel and exercise only.
As states begin to ease social distance restrictions, people are starting to get more options. Between those who want to patronize or personally socialize newly opened companies, and more employers who call people back to work, survey and mobile phone data suggests that people are already starting to trickle out of their homes.
But for many people, it is really not clear which types of meetings are safe and which are not. And that uncertainty can generate fear.
Fortunately, health experts know more about Covid-19 than when the blockages started, and they can point us to different levels of risk when we start relaunching. There is also advice on how to limit damage.
“There is a polarization between two supposed options to stay at home indefinitely … instead of just going back to work,” Julia Marcus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard, told me. “The idea of harm reduction gives us a way to think about risk as a continuum and think about the middle ground between those two options.”
Marcus and Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray made an infographic with the different risk scales. We at Vox were inspired by it and adapted it, with permission from Marcus and Murray:
‘A lot of people when they hear that you can’t completely take your risk away, they think,’ Well, that means it’s inevitable, and I’m just going to do everything I did before, and if I get sick, I get sick. ‘” Murray told me. “But you can do anything and everything in between anything and everything.”
First of all, the advice that has been repeated over the past few months remains true: Your home is still the safest place to be during this pandemic. You should keep trying to stay at home as much as possible, as the virus is still circulating at a rapid rate in many communities. (If you want to be extra careful, some sources like Covid Act Now, help show how much transmission there is in your area.)
But whether you have to work for work or are just tired of looking at the walls of your home, there are ways to reduce the risk when you go out.
First, the outdoors is generally safer, thanks to the open air – where the virus can spread more easily – and possibly the warm, sunny weather. Mark McClellan, Duke’s health policy expert, told me, “It’s a good year for outdoor dining, outdoor shopping, and outdoor activities of all kinds.”
It also matters who you associate with. It’s okay to work closely with people you live with (unless one of you gets sick; then the one who is sick should isolate themselves). But you should try to keep your distance from people you don’t live with. And you should try to avoid dealing with too many people at once; even if it is theoretically possible to keep 6 feet from others in a crowded space, it is still better to avoid this. That goes for outside, but it is mostly where for inside.
When going out, take the now known precautions: Wash your hands. Do not touch your face. Wear a mask, especially in public indoor areas. Avoid shared surfaces and busy settings, and keep a physical distance – at least 6 feet – from people you don’t live with. If you are or have been aged 65 or over chronic health problems which could worsen Covid-19, you should take all this advice more seriously.
Separately, experts say it’s a good idea to plot outings outside your home as much as possible – ideally within two weeks, to match the virus incubation period. You could also form a ‘closed circle’ with people you want to have regular contact with, where both sides agree to minimize contact with someone else (although some experts are skeptical of this idea).
With these tips, you can’t completely rule out the risk of leaving your home. But you can significantly reduce that risk. For some, that could make the prospects of going out – and the benefits going out for your physical and mental health – much more achievable.
However, it all starts with the realization that risk during the coronavirus pandemic is in fact a spectrum and not a black and white choice.
“People take risks whether we like it or not,” said Marcus. “The best we can do is give them strategies to reduce the damage in those situations. If we don’t, we miss an opportunity. “
Read Vox’s full explanation for more detailed tips for going out and how to do that.