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Is it OK to go to a restaurant? Experts answer common questions about life in the time of COVID-19

UPDATED: Sat., March 14, 2020

Social distancing, at its core, is a deceptively simple idea.

“It’s really about how do we deprive the virus of the opportunity to move from one person to another,” said Dr. Darryl Potyk, the chief for medical education at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “It’s just that simple.”

But like most things, simple doesn’t mean easy.

As COVID-19 has continued to spread throughout the region and state, public health experts are urging that we reduce our interactions with others.

For some, those directives are worsening already acute fear and anxiety about the viral disease, said Dr. Anne Mason, a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner and the director of Washington State University’s doctor of nursing practice program.

“Those things can be worsened by the concept of social distancing, which can seem very isolative and lonely,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Instead, Mason drew a distinction between reducing physical contact with others and cutting off emotional connections.

While going out into large public gatherings is not a good idea, she said now is a good time to attend to personal relationships. And social distancing doesn’t mean cutting off all contact with loved ones and family.

Instead, practice good hygiene. However, if you or a loved one are immunocompromised, elderly or otherwise in a high-risk category, more drastic action might be needed.

“The best thing we can do right now for a loved one, particularly someone who is older, is step away and not see them,” Potyk said. “That’s counterintuitive. It takes courage to do that.”

Below is an edited Q&A with Drs. Potyk and Mason addressing common questions about life in the time of COVID-19. In cases where their answers differed, both responses are included.

COVID-19 101

If I can no longer buy anti-bacterial wipes and soap, is plain soap or vinegar fine for hand washing and wiping down counters, etc.?

Mason: Regular soap is fine, but wash with warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds. An easy cleaning product to make is 5 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water. This can be used to wipe down surfaces and door handles.

How effective are masks and gloves?

Mason: It is not necessary to use masks and gloves at home. In public areas, it is most important to wash your hands, avoid touching your face. Other preventive activities might include wiping down the handle on your grocery cart if that is available, wash your hands when you get home.

Potyk: A mask for someone who is sick can help limit the spread to others.

I have to go to work and can’t work from home. How do I interact with people or customers? How often do I wash my hands?

Potyk: If at all possible, stay 6 to 10 feet away to minimize contact with aerosolized particles, don’t shake hands, cover mouth and cough/sneeze into an elbow. Wash or disinfect your hands as often as you think about it, certainly after you have found yourself touching your face.

Mason: If you can, avoid touching high-touch areas like doors (push the door open with your elbow or toe, for example). If you are sick, stay home. If you absolutely have no other choice than to go to work, wear a mask.

Should I stockpile medicine, food, toilet paper or something else?

Mason: No, you should have enough to meet basic needs, including being able to care for yourself if you become ill. For example, having Tylenol and ibuprofen available to treat fever and aches.

Potyk: I would recommend that folks on prescription medications try to secure a 3-month supply if feasible, as some medications are imported, and there may be shortages in the future.

What common misconceptions are you seeing about COVID-19?

Potyk: The biggest misconception is about therapy – as with other viruses, we don’t have specific therapies, we support people through the illness.

Mason: There have been reports of prejudices against persons of Asian ethnicity – this is absolutely inappropriate. The social media posts that indicate the virus is somehow related to Corona beer is comical and inaccurate. The rationale behind toilet paper hoarding is difficult to follow.

Out and about

Is it OK to go to a restaurant? What about takeout?

Potyk: We are social beings and want to interact with others. If you are ill in any way, stay home! If you don’t have symptoms, avoiding crowded places is a reasonable thing to do – if you go, go at off hours when not crowded. Remember that someone made the food you order and will eat. As a result, you are relying upon them to practice good hygiene – most likely, multiple people have participated in the preparation of your meal. Opt for cooked rather than raw foods.

How about the movies?

Potyk: Same – going at off times, avoiding crowds will help. Consider Netflix/Amazon or other streaming services.

If I have the option, should I drive or take public transportation?

Potyk: It all comes down to limiting contact with others who might be infected; we want to keep our distance from others and deny the virus the opportunity to move from one person to another. Reducing the number of exposures in a day is prudent, so driving might be the way to go.

If I have to take public transportation, what should I do?

Potyk: If feasible, go at off hours when there are fewer travelers; minimize the surfaces that you touch, use disinfectant wipes on those surfaces that you will touch, try to keep your distance from others.

Should I be hand-sanitizing whenever I open a public door or touch a credit card machine, and how many germs really are spread that way?

Potyk: Viruses are typically spread in aerosolized droplets – these droplets can dry out, but the virus can remain active on the surface. When you touch the surface with viral particles on it, it sticks to your hand, and then if you touch your nose, eyes, mouth, etc. You can become infected. So ,yes, frequent hand sanitizer/hand washing is the way to go.

Would it be better to use cash or credit cards to slow spread of germs?

Potyk: Sorry, don’t know of any data to formulate a recommendation – in theory, fewer people would touch your credit card, but no data.

What about the gym? Should I give up my summer beach-body goals?

Potyk: Regular exercise can be an important part of our physical and emotional health. If at all possible, I would substitute an outdoor workout if you can. As above, the virus can live on surfaces such as exercise machines. Avoid high-contact machines, wipe them down with disinfectant prior to and after use. Avoid peak hours when the gym is crowded, and try to avoid wiping sweat from your face with your hands.

The home front

When my kid goes back to school, should they be taking any extra precautions?

Potyk: Good hygiene as above.

If my kid gets sick, how long should they stay home?

Potyk: Isolate or quarantine them for 14 days.

How do I prevent the rest of my kids from getting sick?

Potyk: Good hygiene as above. Keep them apart and wash clothes.

How do you recommend talking to my kid(s) about the virus?

Potyk: It depends on their age since it can be fairly graphic. Remind them about avoiding snot, washing hands, sneezing and coughing into elbows, not sharing food or other things that can transmit the virus, such as pens, pencils and Legos.

I’m sick of watching Netflix. Can I invite friends and family over for a dinner party?

Potyk: Assuming you are not symptomatic, having people over would likely be safer than going out to dinner, as you will limit the number of people you are exposed to. Overseeing the food prep can be advantageous, as you and your friends can ensure good hygiene is followed. Again, cooked food is preferred over raw.

If I do have friends over, should they bring their own food, or should I cook it all? What about sharing snacks?

Potyk: Personally, I would avoid sharing finger food. Maintain reasonable distances. I would ensure that those invited over are not in a high-risk group – pregnant, immunosuppressed, elderly, suffering from heart or lung disease.

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