As more and more Pennsylvania counties emerge from red, shelter-in-place status to the still-cautious yellow phase, the return to the next new normal seems to be officially underway.
Philadelphia and the surrounding area starts to reopen on June 5. But Philadelphia’s “Safer at Home" phase will not look like other yellow-phase counties. Restaurants and bars won’t be open for outdoor dining just yet, and while some retail is allowed, online shopping and curbside pickup is still being encouraged.
But can we start, slowly, to expand our social circles? Under the state’s yellow-phase guidelines, gatherings of 25 people or less are allowed.
But what does this really mean? Is it safe? After all, people are still getting sick.
It means that we still have to remain vigilant, said David Damsker, director of the Bucks County Health Department. “The coming three to four weeks is the most crucial part of the entire reopening phase,” said Damsker. He noted the yellow phase is supposed to be a short phase between the red and green phases that allows public health officials to monitor the virus’ presence in the community. “We still have to do our part like wear masks and social distance to stay safe.” So, when we do hit yellow, that still means no house parties, people.
What else does it mean? We talked to a variety of experts. Here’s their advice:
In the yellow phase, people are allowed to get together, as long as there aren’t more than 25 in the group. But that doesn’t mean we should. We should still err on the side of not gathering in groups, and only see others when it’s important and it can’t be done virtually, said Damsker. Maybe you are paying last respects. Or perhaps it’s an intimate wedding. In these circumstances, we should still maintain 6 feet of social distancing and wear our masks, Damsker said.
“We are still safer at home and should only leave to engage in essential activities,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a news conference.
Caution is key: “Rule of thumb: You are safer at home. You and your friends and family are safest apart. The disease is still spreading widely so if you don’t have to go out, don’t. If you have to be near others, you should maintain at least a 6 foot distance from them, and wear a mask,” James Garrow, a spokesperson for the city, wrote in an email.
“Just because the recommendations and rules have relaxed doesn’t mean that the disease is any less infectious or deadly. The reason that we are seeing fewer cases today than a month ago is because people have been following these rules.”
So to be clear: “While the June 5 order by the state allows gatherings up to 25 people, the City of Philadelphia still does not recommend gatherings of any size,” Garrow said.
Yes. You should only get together with people where you can maintain social distancing and there is good ventilation and air flow, said Theresa Sweet, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Drexel School of Public Health. And if you’re inside, it’s still a good idea to wear a mask if you’re with people you don’t live with, Sweet said.
If you are around people you don’t live with, it is still recommended that you wear a mask in the yellow phase. You can still stay 6 feet away from people and have a nice conversation, Damsker said. We aren’t saying that you have to stay in the house, but it’s important that if you are out that you still wear a mask and continue to social distance.
Although the state’s yellow counties have not prohibited church service, the city of Philadelphia is highly recommending that we refrain from attending indoor church services. This is because coughing, sneezing, or singing could release respiratory droplets that could carry the virus, said Dr. Thomas Farley, the commissioner of the Philadelphia Department of Health. “It is widely speculated that singing increases the risk [of spreading COVID-19] and singing is a key part of religious gatherings," Farley said.
Having people inside your house would significantly increase the risk to all involved, wrote Nate Wardle, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, in an email. When many people touch surfaces, it increases the risk. So it’s better to meet with people outside: You’re lowering the risk for everyone.
Coronavirus is not a foodborne illness, Damsker said, so as long as people use disposable utensils to serve themselves, they should be fine. You should also offer pre-bottled beers or drinks and avoid sharing bottles. Also make sure to wash your hand before you eat.
Just because you’ve been sheltering-in-place doesn’t mean that you don’t have coronavirus. After all, you may not have been completely isolated: You may have gone to the store, for example. And, remember, many infections are still asymptomatic, said Damsker, which means that you can carry — and transmit — the virus, even if you don’t have any symptoms.
So, be careful. In the yellow phase you should be able to visit elderly parents and people who are at risk, but if you do, be extra careful, which means meeting outside if possible and staying 6 to 10 feet away from them the whole time. And if you have the sniffles, or a fever, or a cough, don’t visit at all.
In an email, Garrow wrote: “The Health Department still does not believe it is safe to congregate with others outside of your household, especially if they are in a vulnerable group like the elderly. That said, if you and someone have both been properly following social distancing recommendations, and will continue to, it could be possible to see them.”
Unless you are sure that you haven’t been exposed — for instance you’ve quarantined in place for 14 days, that means no going to the grocery store — you probably shouldn’t, Sweet said. It sounds harsh, but it’s still too risky, she said. This holds extra true if you’re meeting someone who has an underlying condition.
The Governor’s Office is not restricting travel between counties, Wardle said. Damsker added: “Just because you live in a yellow phase [county] doesn’t mean you have coronavirus." So, if you are following social distance rules and wearing a mask when necessary, you should be fine.
But Sweet, who is an epidemiologist, had different advice: “If you are in the yellow phase, you are living in a place where there is a higher risk that you may be infected, so you are going to take your higher-risk self over to the green phase?” she asks. “That doesn’t seem fair.”
“The Health Department strongly urges Philadelphians not to travel at this time unless absolutely necessary,” said Garrow. “It’s been documented that this disease can spread without symptoms, so if you go from Philadelphia into an area that has fewer cases of the disease, you may start an outbreak there.”
Yes, you can. But … if you are unsure of their level of exposure for the last two weeks, you should continue social distancing and wear a mask, Sweet said.
You have to figure out your risk tolerance, Damsker said. On the safe side, this isn’t a time to jump into new social situations, since we need to be very careful. For the time being, you’re probably safe if you meet a new acquaintance at a park and social distance or wear a mask, Damsker added.
“The Health Department does not recommend meeting strangers or new people or attending gatherings,” said Garrow.
It’s OK for you to expand you and your children’s your social circle as long as you maintain social distancing. But it can be hard to keep young kids apart, Sweet said. So you have to use common sense and ask the important questions of other parents: Has anyone in either household been sick? Is there anyone at home who is in the high-risk category or has preexisting conditions? Who has everyone been in contact with?
And even if you’ve determined that your kids aren’t at risk playing with the neighbors, there are some things that just aren’t safe to do. “Anything that involves contact of common object such as a basketball could be of concern based on the health of others participating,” Wardle said. Contact sports are also a no-no. Those you should wait to do in the green phase, Damsker said.
“The rule of thumb to follow is that as difficult as it is for adults to remember rules of masking and social distancing, it is even more difficult for children. They are used to touch and physical activity without concern for personal space,” said Garrow.