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COVID-19 Reopening: What's the Risk for Offices, Sports, Restaurants, Events?

By Adam Townsend

The COVID-19 death rate is falling throughout the U.S. and the nation is opening its offices, malls, restaurants, parks and beaches.

Still, the deadly coronavirus continues its assault, killing dozens every day, leaving many to wonder how to protect themselves as economic and other circumstances force more and more people into the public sphere.

Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD is here to help; as an emergency medicine expert, microbiologist, and MedicineNet author and editor, he has been poring over the coronavirus literature since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Davis says the best tools are still social distancing (maintaining at least a six-foot distance from others); handwashing and sanitary practices; and wearing masks in public.

Wear Your Mask

The University of Washington and an engineering team out of Florida have done some of the best research on the effectiveness of masks, Dr. Davis said.

Researchers at Florida Atlantic University used a mannequin and pressurized air to mimic the force of an average cough. They measured the trail of vapor droplets expelled from the synthetic cough using LED and laser lights, according to FAU.

The researchers there showed some forceful coughs can eject vapor droplets – droplets that would contain coronavirus particles in an infected person – up to 12 feet, twice the recommended minimum social distance requirement.

Though masks tested in this experiment did not block all the breath vapor from inhalation by bystanders wearing them, a mask significantly reduced the forward trajectory of the cough vapor when placed on the dummy, the FAU release states.

”The general effectiveness for non-N95 masks is about 50 to 75 percent.” Davis said (N95 masks are medical grade and used mainly by clinicians). “The Florida team showed if you’re wearing a mask, and you cough, it goes out the sides of the mask and a little bit out of the bottom, but it is largely contained in your personal area vs. when you cough, breathe or speak without a mask.”

Dr. Davis refuted the particular media narrative that asserts masks don’t prevent transmission in a meaningful way.

“In wearing a mask, you’re doing the best you can for yourself and the others around you,” Dr. Davis said. “When you don’t, you’re flipping a coin and saying that ‘well, 50% of the time, I’m not going to be exposed, but I’m just going to take that risk.’ But if you don’t wear the mask, you’re at a much higher percentage chance you’ll get the virus, and if you have the virus and you’re asymptomatic, there is a 100% chance that you’re spreading it.”

Office Safety

“No matter what you do, when you go back to the office you should wear a mask and social distance,” Dr. Davis said. “In an open office plan, try to maintain social distancing and wear your masks. If you have a separate office to yourself, you can be relatively sure you’re not going to be interacting with too many people. But if you go out of that office, you should be wearing a mask.”

Dr. Davis said most employers will likely have sanitizers, disinfectant, and masks available for employees. Still, you should stay home if you can if you’re in a high-risk group—like people with respiratory or autoimmune disorders.

“If you are in a group that is more highly susceptible to COVID-19, then you ought to probably stay at home,” Davis said.

Playing Sports

Dr. Davis said non-contact sports played outdoors like tennis or golf are safest, while basketball, football and others are ripe for viral transmission.

“Think about yourself being a potential virus spreader, and don’t know you have the disease,” Davis said. “If you’re out on a basketball court, you’re going to be huffing and puffing, breathing heavily and often, and I doubt you’ll be wearing a mask.”

If you choose to play any sports with others, try to do it outside and protect yourself as much as possible with hygiene and sanitation measures mentioned above.

“Tennis, for example, is a much easier sport to manage, but all the players will be touching the same ball, so the risk is not zero,” Dr. Davis said.

Shopping and Restaurants

“Again, you want to try to do the right thing, and the right thing is to wear a mask, wash your hands, wear rubber gloves, and be careful about entering,” Dr. Davis said about shopping malls, retail stores, and restaurants.

“If you’re touching things, you can bet there will be other people touching them,” he said. “Keep yourself away from crowds as much as you possibly can.”

Follow rules that individual retailers, restaurants and other public facilities have posted; the CDC has updated its suggestions in detail to help these public businesses stave off the coronavirus.

Table Manners

“The further you can get away from other tables, the better,” Dr. Davis said. “Terrace or outdoor dining is safer because the viral particles diffuse fairly quickly. If you’re in a high-risk group, it’s best to order takeout until we get an effective drug or vaccine.”

The CDC has issued guidelines for restaurants to reopen at diminished capacity with tables six feet apart, among other measures.

Dr. Davis reiterated that restaurant diners should follow the social distancing, mask, and hygiene guidelines as much as possible. Wear your mask upon entry, until the food comes and when the wait staff approaches the table, if possible.

Beaches, Parks and Outdoor Spectator Events

Planning a big weekend trip to a beach or pool you know will be crowded? Pick another day, Dr. Davis said.

“If you can’t enforce social distancing, my suggestion is don’t go,” he said. “What you can do is visit some beaches or walking parks with no big crowds; that’s a lower-risk activity.”

You should, once again, keep your mask on, don’t touch your face, wash your hands a lot and don’t stand in the breeze next to people who are obviously ignoring these guidelines.

“What you don’t want to do is be downwind of a group of people who aren’t wearing masks,” Davis said. “This is true for the beach, true for the park, and true if you’re a spectator at an outside sporting event.”

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Reviewed on 5/28/2020

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