Revisiting Businesses Safely During COVID-19 Pandemic
Learn what measures can help to minimize infection risk as you manage arthritis and get back to daily life.
By Bryan D. Vargo and Michele Andwele
Businesses that have re-opened their doors provide a glimpse of what the new normal may look like during the COVID-19 pandemic. You may wonder whether it’s safe to venture out, and if you do, what safety precautions you should take.
Health experts agree we’re not out of the woods yet, but there are key precautions that can help to reduce your risk of contracting COVID-19 when you go out in public.
Person-to-person infections account for 94% of all COVID-19 cases, which makes social distancing one of the No. 1 precautions you should take.
“Because the number of people who are asymptomatic [no visible symptoms] is unknown, you have to assume that people who look healthy may be infected by the SARS CoV-2 virus,” says Robert Murphy, MD, executive director of the Institute for Global Health and professor of infectious diseases at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Read on to learn what other safety precautions the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommend that you and businesses take – as well as some practical tips from the Arthritis Foundation and Dr. Murphy – to help protect you from the novel coronavirus.
Q: What measures should I take, specifically if I’m high-risk due to arthritis when going out in public and frequenting businesses?
- Continue to practice physical distancing by remaining 6 feet (about two arms’ length) from all others not in your household. This can prove especially challenging when you’re out in public, so be patient, pay close attention to your surroundings and don’t be shy about explaining to others that you need to distance yourself.
- If you’re immunocompromised, have other health conditions, including diabetes, chronic lung disease, severe obesity or serious heart conditions, or if you are age 65 or older, it’s best to continue limiting how often you go out and the number of people you’re around as much as possible.
- Continue to regularly wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially before you eat, after bathroom visits, after sneezing or coughing, blowing your nose and you have been in a public space. Use hand sanitizer or wipes with at least 60% alcohol when handwashing is not possible.
- When you leave home, wear a mask that covers your mouth and nose. “But remember that your mask doesn’t protect you, it protects the people around you if you’re infected,” says Dr. Murphy. Because many people are not wearing masks, it’s important to keep your distance from them.
- Be vigilant about not touching your face and make sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer while you’re out.
- Wearing gloves can give you a false sense of security. Make sure not to touch your face even if you wear gloves. Remove gloves carefully, without touching the areas that made contact with surfaces or you’ll need to wash your hands.
- Wipe tables, shopping carts and baskets and other surfaces and objects with a disinfectant cleaner before you use them. When you go to grocery and other retail stores, consider taking your own foldable shopping cart. If you’re buying only a few items, take your bags to carry them around the store instead of using the store’s carts and baskets.
- Know your level of risk before going to a restaurant or bar. According to the CDC, the more an individual interacts with others and the longer that interaction lasts, the higher their risk of contracting COVID-19. The type of dining also affects the level of risk:
- Lowest Risk: Food service limited to drive-through, delivery, take-out and curbside pickup.
- Moderate Risk: On-site dining limited to outdoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
- Higher Risk: On-site dining with indoor seating. Seating capacity reduced to allow tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
- Highest Risk: On-site dining with indoor seating capacity not reduced and tables not spaced at least 6 feet apart. When possible, pay for items and services with smartphone apps like PayPal, Venmo, Apple Pay and Google Pay. Ask your bank about credit or debit cards with a chip that requires a simple tap to pay.
Q: Some businesses are required to take measures to protect you and other patrons. Newly opened businesses can take a cue from essential businesses that have remained open throughout the pandemic. What are those measures?
Ultimately, required measures depend on the type of business, the municipality in which they’re located and the rate of infection in the area. The easiest way to ensure that businesses are doing what’s required is to simply ask. When in doubt, go elsewhere, say experts. Ask managers what measures are being taken and use this checklist as a reference:
- Increased ventilation, including continuous running HVAC systems bringing in fresh air from the outside.
- Screening all customers and employees for fever and respiratory symptoms before shifts, including taking customers and employees’ temperatures. Requiring any employees to stay home if they are sick or have been in close contact with anyone who is sick.
- Routine and increased handwashing and hand sanitization among employees, especially before, during and after preparing food; after touching garbage; after touching their face; and other unsanitary contact. Encourage employees to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue. Used tissues should be thrown in the trash and hands washed immediately with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Physical distancing (6 feet when possible) of employees and customers, plus directional traffic control – only going in through entrances and only going out through exits, as well as visual cues to space customers apart when standing in line.
- Limiting the number of customers in the business to ensure physical distancing.
- Masks and gloves worn by all employees.
- Signage requiring or recommending that customers wear masks when entering the business.
- Routine and increased cleaning and disinfecting of all frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, tables and chairs and payment kiosks.
- Offer drive-through, curbside pick-up, take-out or delivery options when possible. Discourage crowded waiting areas by using phone apps, text technology or signs to alert patrons when their item or order is ready.
- For restaurants, consider options for dine-in customers to order ahead of time to limit the amount of time spent in the establishment, prioritize outdoor seating as much as possible and don’t offer self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets, salad bars, shared condiment containers and drink stations.
Q: What about air travel and road trips?
If traveling by air, airlines now require all employees and passengers to wear masks. Avoid moving and touching surfaces on the plane as much as possible, advises Dr. Murphy. “Don’t take anything from the flight attendant, don’t take anything from another passenger.” If someone near you – in the same row or one row ahead or behind you – on the plane looks sick or refuses to wear a mask, “get off the plane,” says Dr. Murphy. “It’s just not worth it.”
For buses, trains, subways or other public or private transportation, including ride-share services, masks are a must, says Dr. Murphy. “You should not be getting into one of those confined spaces that has poor ventilation if everybody is not wearing a mask.”
With road trips, keep stops to a minimum. Find out about disinfecting and other safety precautions at the hotels or other lodging facilities you plan to stay. Wipe down all common areas, including doorknobs, microwave and fridge doors, faucets and handles, TV remotes and phones with disinfecting wipes.
Q: Is it safe to go to doctor visits?
Getting the care you need to keep your arthritis under control is critical. That means keeping up with doctors’ appointments, infusions, lab work, physical therapy and other routine care. Health care professionals and patients are required to take specific safety precautions depending on the visit or procedure. Check with your doctor to see what’s required and what measures are being taken. Expect to at least answer a series of questions and have your temperature taken. Wearing a mask is a must. To limit the amount of time in the waiting room, find out if you can wait in the car and get a text when it’s your turn to see the doctor or get blood drawn. If possible, go to medical visits by yourself; don’t take anyone with you unless it is essential. When possible, opt for a telemedicine visit if your doctor agrees.
Q: What businesses should I consider skipping for now?
Tattoo parlors, hair salons, nail salons, barbers, massage therapists and other businesses that require close personal contact are considered higher risk because social distancing is impossible. However, if facilities are kept clean, all employees and patrons wear masks and waiting areas are not crowded and allow for social distancing, then your risk for infection is significantly reduced. If these precautions cannot be met, consider having a friend or family member do your nails and even cut your hair at home. Or find a professional who makes house calls to provide the services in your home. There are lots of online videos that can help guide you through common self-grooming routines.
Q: What about gyms?
Physical activity is a critical part of managing arthritis pain, easing stress and promoting overall wellness. However, gyms are high-risk environments. It’s best to stick to walking, hiking, running and other at-home workout options. If you need in-person camaraderie to stay motivated, keep the group very small, meet in an outdoor location and maintain social distancing. If you still want to return to the gym, expect that many people won’t wear masks. Go when the gym has the fewest people working out, maintain 6 or more feet distance from others, wipe down gym equipment with disinfecting wipes before using it and use hand sanitizer before and after touching equipment.