If I Can Now Shop in California, When Can I See My Friends in Person? Some Guidelines

People mingle close together as businesses in the flower district of Skid Row open in time for Mother's Day on May 8, 2020, in Los Angeles.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

As a sunny Memorial Day weekend approaches, many, including me, wonder what a pandemic summer looks like.

I can squash the longing to go to concerts and festivals. But what about a socially distanced, mask-wearing picnic with a neighbor? Or a stroll on the beach with a friend?

The official answer is still no.

“At this time, mixing of households is not permitted, so most socializing should still only occur virtually,” said Neetu Balrum, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Public Health Department.

Contra Costa County Health Officer Dr. Chris Farnitano, agreed.

"Gatherings outside of your household are a big risk for the spread of this virus," he said  "We still don't know yet when we will be able to encourage people to get together with people outside of their households."

Public health officials in San Francisco, Solano and San Mateo counties provided a similar response.

Stir Crazy, and Lonely

Even though officials aren’t budging, increased movement on the streets reflects changing sentiment among residents. My Oakland neighborhood, for instance, is starting to hum with the return of vehicles, and a KQED analysis of traffic over the last five weeks found a big increase in miles traveled since April. Meanwhile, neighborhood parks are filled with clusters of people sprawling on picnic blankets.

"Quarantine Fatigue is Real" — that's the name of an Atlantic article byJulia Marcus, professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School. She argues that refraining from social contact is unsustainable and could lead to negative consequences. 

"I’m talking about those who are experiencing the profound burden of extreme physical and social distancing," she wrote. "In addition to the economic hardship it causes, isolation can severely damage psychological well-being, especially for people who were already depressed or anxious before the crisis started."

Asking Americans to abstain from nearly all in-person social contact will not work any better than abstinence-only messaging does for the discouragement of sex, Marcus says. She suggests that officials offer nuanced directives to reduce risk rather than try to eliminate it.

"What Americans need now is a manual on how to have a life in a pandemic," wrote Marcus. If they don't, she says, we will need to figure it out on our own.

California state Sen. Scott Weiner agrees with this approach.

"People are going to start seeing their friends," Wiener said. "And we have to acknowledge that that is the reality of human existence, and we can't pretend otherwise. I think it is important in the near future for the state and for Bay Area officials to start giving more precise guidance about how you reduce risk."

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Shopping OK'd

Citing progress made on a series of metrics related to the pandemic, public health officials in the Bay Area this week allowed more stores to reopen, albeit with major limitations like restricting sales to curbside pickup. The state authorized this move earlier in the month. San Francisco's public health officer said on Tuesday it will wait until early-to-late June before considering the next phase of loosening restrictions, and a reversal of course is still possible.

"If needed, we will dial back if the curve goes up or we see indication that the virus is spreading in the community at an alarming rate," said Dr. Grant Colfax.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says 70 percent of California’s economy is now open for business. But he hasn't offered any further guidance on when and if people can socialize with friends or family outside the household. Newsom and health officials continue to stress that new cases are recorded daily, and if there's one thing for certain, this pandemic is not over. In California on Monday, 102 people died from COVID-19, the highest number of deaths in a month.

Safer Ways to Socialize

If you are determined to socialize despite public health recommendations, there are ways to reduce your risk. Marcus suggests meeting outside because the sun, heat and humidity likely assist in killing the virus. Also, you should definitely wear a mask, wash your hands frequently, and avoid sharing food or drinks.

This Los Angeles Times article lays out seven scenarios to help you decide which activities are safer than others. Some takeaways: Backyard barbecues with kids are out, socially distanced walks are fine, and allowing a friend to use your bathroom is a safe bet.

The question agonizing many families is when to see the grandparents. It’s especially tricky if you must fly to see older family members. Based on this account in the Atlantic (“We apologize for the alarming amount of passengers on this flight"), I’m leery about booking a flight to see gramma. In fact scientists say it’s a good idea to avoid indoor spaces as much as possible because limited air exchange and recycled air leads to more infections. 

A recent post," The Risks - Know Them - Avoid Them," by Erin Bromage, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth associate professor of biology, details how droplets move indoors, leading to increased virus transmission. For example, if you're dining inside, airflow vents will carry the virus to 75 percent of people sitting downwind of an asymptomatic carrier breathing normally during a 90-minute meal.

Gulp.

For me, takeout is the ticket for the foreseeable future. 

“The main sources for infection are home, workplace, public transport, social gatherings, and restaurants," Bromage wrote. "This accounts for 90% of all transmission events. In contrast, outbreaks spread from shopping appear to be responsible for a small percentage of traced infections.”

Bromage wrote the equation that people should remember is “dose plus time.” You have to be in someone’s physical airstream for longer than five minutes to catch the virus. Therefore, enjoy your next distanced walk, but wash your hands when you get back home. Don’t touch your face. And stay home if you’re sick.

Personally it's difficult for my brain to weigh risks, especially when we are talking about something that is potentially life and death. For now, I'm choosing to err on the cautious side, while hoping officials offer more detailed directives soon.

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