The once-in-a-lifetime coronavirus pandemic is stretching us to our limits physically, financially and emotionally.
Stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has disrupted many of the things we do to manage our stress, especially being able to share time and good food with family and friends.
One of the biggest complaints UCI Health infectious disease expert Dr. Shruti Gohil hears from patients is that they’re unable to socialize in restaurants, bars and large gatherings.
Yet those are the vary activities that pose the greatest risk for exposure to the virus, says Gohil, associate medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention for UCI Health.
Being in close and prolonged contact with people who are unmasked and often talking loudly, touching many things and putting food and drink into their mouths, increases the potential for virus transmission.
"There are two ways to get COVID: Either you breathe it in or you introduce it into your mouth or nose with your hands," Gohil says.
"When eating or drinking at bars or restaurants or large gatherings, it’s hard to keep up barriers between your respiratory tract and someone else’s, so you’re basically opening a pathway for the virus to enter your system if it’s present. The outbreaks we’ve been seeing are no surprise."
It’s why the governor of California issued orders in mid-July to once again shutdown indoor service in restaurants, bars, gyms, salons and movie theaters.
Basic safety rules
Preventing the virus’ spread as society opens up and people try to get back to their daily lives, Gohil says, boils down to following a few basic rules:
- Wear a mask in public places.
- Keep a social distance of at least six feet from others.
- Choose well-ventilated areas (outdoors or in well-ventilated stores or venues) over indoor areas.
- Be vigilant about hand hygiene and refrain from touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
"If you stick to those concepts, you should be able to navigate any scenario," she says. "Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is actually simple; the problem is getting everyone to comply."
These principles are evident in the risk estimates for a range of activities ranked in a chart produced by the Texas Medical Association that recently went viral:
- Low risk: Pumping gas. If there is good ventilation, you keep your distance from others and you clean your hands before and after putting gas in your car, this is a low risk activity.
- Low-to-moderate risk: Eating on a restaurant patio. If there is good ventilation, appropriate distance between you and other parties, masks and gloves are worn by wait staff and patrons wear masks going to and from their tables, the risk is low to moderate.
- Moderate risk: Mall shopping. Even in a well-ventilated mall where a mask can be worn around strangers, the difficulty in observing a social distance from others raises the risk to moderate.
- Moderate to high risk: Going to a hair salon or barbershop, attending a wedding or funeral, traveling by plane or playing basketball makes social distancing difficult if not impossible. Add poor ventilation and the risk is moderate to high.
- High risk: The risk of exposure to the virus is greatest when masks aren’t or can’t be worn, social distancing can’t be maintained and good ventilation is impossible. Think eating at a buffet, attending a sports event or concert, and going to a bar, where drinking alcohol also helps lower inhibitions.
These guidelines are useful for the risk of transmission through the air. But Gohil says we also must be mindful of the risks posed by touching surfaces in public settings that could be contaminated. This is why frequent handwashing and good hand hygiene is important.
Lower your risk
Although we can lower our risk of spreading or being exposing to the virus, we cannot reduce that risk to zero, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“In general, the more closely you interact with others and the longer the interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread,” the CDC notes in its recommendations for venturing into public spaces.
Whenever you leave home — whether to work, shop or play — the CDC advises bringing along:
- A face covering
- A hand sanitizer that is at least 70% alcohol
- Tissues to avoid contact with high-touch surfaces
And when you are out and about, try to apply these do’s and don’ts when engaged in the following activities:
- Wear a mask.
- Keep your distance from others.
- Stay behind plastic shields between you and workers.
- Use touchless payment when possible.
- Clean your hands before and after shopping.
- Disinfect shopping carts and baskets.
- Shop during non-peak hours.
Using public transportation:
- Keep your distance from people while waiting for and using public transportation.
- Wear a face covering.
- Avoid touching surfaces — ticket machines, handrails, restroom surfaces, benches — as much as possible, then wash your hands if you do.
- Wipe down shared bikes, scooters and other transport devices.
- Open a window in a taxi, Uber or Lyft if possible.
- Travel during non-peak hours.
Visiting parks and recreation spots:
- Wear a mask.
- Practice social distancing in open areas, on walkways and trails, and in pools, lakes and the ocean.
- Avoid high-touch surfaces such as playground gyms.
- Avoid large gatherings with people you don’t live with.
- Clean your hands frequently.
The recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across Southern California make it clear that the need for these precautions will remain with us for some time to come.
"The best thing we can do right now is to train ourselves and each other to be guided by basic infection prevention principles to reduce risk," Gohil says.
"Yes, it’s frustrating. But in these extraordinary times, we need to do extraordinary things. Your health and your family’s safety are worth it."