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Is it safe to shop and eat out yet? We assess the risk

Customers do curbside pickup at Cookies, a streetwear clothing store on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In most parts of the United States, you can now grab a drink with your friends at a bar, eat inside a restaurant, get your hair washed and cut in a salon, and try on clothes in a store.

Manicures and pedicures are generally allowed, as is working out in a gym and even getting a massage to soothe your stressed-out muscles.

It sounds like a dream come true after all those months cooped up at home — but at the same time, for many of us, something feels off.

Sure, we want the economy to reopen and do the things that used to bring us joy. But then we remember that the virus hasn’t actually disappeared. In fact, in some parts of the country like California, Texas, Arizona and Florida, the number of people infected is still rising each day.

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We also remember that in just five months, this virus has killed more than 116,000 Americans and infected more than 2.1 million.

COVID-19 has killed more than 100,000 people in the U.S., but some are more vulnerable than others. These charts show how Americans have been affected.

And so we wonder: Is it really safe to be out and about? If I care about my own health and the health of my family and neighbors, should I be resisting the urge to patronize businesses in person even if my local government says I can?

The L.A. Times spoke with epidemiologists and physicians about what has changed since stay-at-home orders were first put in place, what remains the same, and what we can do to be responsible citizens as we move into the summer months.

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And just so you know, this article is not going to address the risks associated with attending protests. Why? Because the risks you’re willing to take to get your hair cut or eat at your favorite restaurant may not be the same as those you might take to fight systemic racism. That’s a whole other story.

Now, back to reopening ...

First things first: The virus hasn’t changed, and the pandemic is not over

The first thing to remember is that the coronavirus is no less deadly or contagious now than it was three months ago, when the country all but shut down.

“It’s still the same virus that has caused an average of 1,000 U.S. deaths a day and 4,000 around the world,” said Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University. “I’m worried that people have accepted where we are as the new normal. This is not normal.”

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And it’s not like we are nearing the end of the pandemic either, said Carolyn Cannuscio, director of research at the Center for Public Health Initiatives at the University of Pennsylvania. Far from it.

Yes, there are significant health risks associated with lockdown. But returning to normal life too soon and rushing herd immunity would be even worse.

Studies suggest just 5% of the U.S. population has been infected with the virus thus far. To get herd immunity, 60% to 70% of the population will need to be infected.

“If you think about how many people have died in just the first few months of this crisis, we still have a lot of suffering ahead of us,” Cannuscio said. “We should try to do all we can to contribute to slowing the pandemic to give us more time to establish effective treatments.”

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However, we do know more about it than we used to

Even as coronavirus infections and fatalities continue to grow, some experts say it is safer to venture out into the world today than it was when most stay-at-home orders first went into effect.

“I would say it’s a lot safer,” said Gerardo Chowell, a professor of mathematical epidemiology at Georgia State University. “We have a lot more information about the enemy.”

Back in March and April, we still did not know that the virus spread primarily through the droplets expressed when we cough, sneeze, shout or sing without wearing masks. We also didn’t know about the potential for asymptomatic transmission, or the potential for presymptomatic transmission, he said.

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“Now, assuming that the population at large has this information, we have the power to protect ourselves,” he said.

‘We may be moving gently at this point toward the Asian culture,’ one health expert says of everyday mask-wearing.

Specifically, several studies have shown that wearing facemasks can drastically reduce the spread of the virus.

“Back in April, it was not yet clear how useful this tool was,” he said. “Since then, the science has been overwhelming.”

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So, even if you live in a state where the virus is circulating more now than it was in March — as in California — we now know that your chances of becoming infected are relatively low if you are careful about wearing a mask, social distancing and washing your hands.

Many hospitals are better prepared to treat COVID-19 patients

One of the reasons we all stayed at home for three months was to slow the outbreak’s spread and give hospitals time to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients as the numbers of infections inevitably ticked up.

“We didn’t eliminate the virus, but we pumped the brakes on it,” said Dr. Armand Dorian, chief medical officer for Verdugo Hills Hospital of USC in Glendale.

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In the past few months, most hospitals have put that grace period to good use, Dorian said. Among other things, they’ve stocked up on personal protective equipment for medical professionals and obtained more ventilators.

Health workers have also learned more about how to treat the sickest patients.

“The treatment options are not great, but they are better than before,” he said.

Researchers in England say drug can reduce death rates in very ill COVID-19 patients. But it’s risky for those with mild symptoms.

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Now, doctors know to consider therapeutics like dexamethasone, remdesivir, anti-inflammatories and rheumatoid arthritis medication. They’ve learned to have patients lie prone on their bellies and to not intubate them right away.

“Three years from now we’ll look back at this treatment and say it was so primitive, but it is massive leaps from where we were a few months ago,” Dorian said.

However, Cannuscio cautions that even with these improvements, COVID-19 is not something you want to catch.

“I don’t think we’ve had enough advances in treatment to make me feel this is an unconcerning infection,” she said. “I still think this is a disease we want to prevent.”

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What to consider before going out for dinner, drinks or shopping

Where does this all leave us? Is it OK to go out to eat? Get your hair cut? Go shopping for something besides groceries?

All the experts say that to make the most responsible decision, you’ll have to consider many factors. For example, what are the daily case counts looking like in your region? If the numbers are going down, it’s probably safer than if they are going up.

Do you have underlying issues that could mean the virus is more likely to hit you especially hard? Do you live with someone who has underlying issues? That should factor into your decision-making too.

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You’ve stayed at home long enough and want to socialize with your friends. Here’s how you can gather without putting your health -- or theirs -- in jeopardy.

Also, you’ll want to know what steps the businesses you want to patronize are taking to protect you from the virus. Are the employees wearing masks? Are they limiting the number of people allowed in the store at a time? Are they frequently sanitizing the space?

“In my opinion, the government is not doing an adequate job preparing businesses to reopen,” said Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University. “So the risk lies in how well a particular store is doing.”

His personal strategy is to wait for more adventurous friends to let him know which shops and restaurants feel the most safe.

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“I don’t want to be a guinea pig,” he said. “I would rather wait and observe.”

Overtime, Chi hopes that stores will learn best practices from each other.

“My assumption — and kind of wishful thinking — is that restaurants, bars and clothing shops will have to do a good job keeping their business safe for customers if they want to survive,” he said.

The challenge of individual responsibility

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What makes all of this so confusing is that without clear advice from local health authorities about what is safe and what is not, people with no formal training in epidemiology are now making health decisions that can affect not just them, but those with whom they come in contact.

“I think it’s a lot to ask most people who are not scientists to interpret epidemiological data,” Cannuscio said.

She suggests that a good rule of thumb is to think critically about what activities are necessary and what would just feel really good.

“The risks I’m willing to take to access a luxury are fewer than the risks I would take in other arenas,” she said.

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For example, going to the grocery store is a necessity. Buying a new dress is not.

As the coronavirus keeps us stuck at home, scientists and health officials fear that social distancing could take a toll on our mental health.

Cannuscio adds that going out less and staying home more — for those who are able — also supports those who do not have that privilege because of their jobs.

It’s also a way to support Black and brown lives, as COVID-19 has disproportionately affected African American and Latino communities.

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“Anybody who claims to believe in the quest for racial justice should do everything possible to prevent the harms of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said

Still, most experts say they don’t expect Americans to stay home for months on end.

“It’s like a fad diet: if it’s not sustainable, it’s not going to work,” Dorian said. “What I want is for you to have a sustainable, healthy lifestyle.”

To him, that means wear your mask, sanitize your hands and distance yourself from others. You can go out, but only if you bring your protective bubble with you.


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