“Happy Mother’s Day — sending you a virtual hug!”
Celebrations through phone or Zoom can never replace the real deal. And now, with Father’s Day just weeks away, we all want to know, can we visit our parents yet?
The short answer: Once we reach the yellow phase, you’re allowed to go see your parents. But before you make plans to visit, there’s a longer answer to consider, too. Health experts say it’s still too soon, and if you want to be safe, you may want to wait it out a little longer.
Philadelphia and the surrounding areas will move into the yellow “Safer at home” phase on June 5. Under the yellow phase, gatherings of more than 25 people remain prohibited. But we are allowed to be around other people outside of our household — as long as everyone remains six feet apart.
Social distancing, wearing a mask, and routine hand washing are all practices that will remain important even into the green phase, says Gov. Tom Wolf.
Obviously if you’re in your parents’ backyard, no one’s going to be policing you. But you’re still highly encouraged to keep your distance, and some argue you shouldn’t be there at all.
“Do you really need to see your parents right now? Let’s get the infrastructure together for contact tracing in place, and then we can have a whole lot more information to make data-informed decisions about hanging out,” says Michael LeVasseur, visiting assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Drexel University. “If people start relaxing things too soon, we’re going to be right back where we started and everything will shut down again.”
Contact tracing is the process used to track who an infected person has recently interacted with to determine who else might be at risk of contracting the virus. Until there’s a system in place for officials to carry out widespread contact tracing, LeVasseur advises against making unnecessary trips to see family.
“We just don’t know right now everywhere where the infections are, and you could very well be infected, without symptoms, and pass it on to your parents,” says LeVasseur. “Once we have contact tracing systems in place, then we can at least see who’s being exposed, gather more information, and quarantine the people that need to be quarantined. We don’t have the capacity for that yet.”
At its simplest, contact tracing will make it easier to figure out if you’ve been exposed to someone with the virus. One challenge with the coronavirus is that you can be contagious before you start to feel symptoms, or you can be infected and not have symptoms at all. Many people who do feel symptoms have mild ones, particularly in the early stages. So you could mistake a mild cough for allergies, and end up putting your parents at risk.
It’s also important to remember that your parents may be considered “high risk.” According to the CDC, anyone 65 years or older, or people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions, might be at higher risk for severe illness from the coronavirus. No one wants their parents to end up in the hospital.
“For people who are at high risk, you should act as if they’re still in the red phase, under stay at home orders,” says Dr. Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University.
Johnson doesn’t recommend visiting parents who are older and/or immunocompromised unless you’ve quarantined for two weeks at your home and have your own vehicle for transportation. Symptoms of the coronavirus may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus. Isolating for the full window will help ensure you aren’t potentially presymptomatic or asymptomatic.
If you aren’t able to self-isolate for that long, and absolutely must see your parents, aim to quarantine for at least six days. This approach still includes some guesswork, but it’s better than nothing.
“Ninety-five percent of people who develop symptoms will do so in two weeks, but 50 percent will do so in six days,” says LeVasseur. “So if you absolutely must, make that your minimum, but again, not everyone develops any symptoms at all.”
Before seeing your parents, it’s a good idea to ask if they’ve been spending time with people outside of their household, and vice versa. The fewer interactions, the less likely you are to spread the virus.
“Pick your people. If your people are your parents, then don’t see anyone else, and don’t let them see anyone else,” says LeVasseur.
When visiting, plan to hang outside. Being outdoors is considered safer than gathering indoors, and it also makes it easier to practice social distancing. Out of precaution, even while staying six feet apart, experts recommend that everyone wears a mask. And, unfortunately, you should avoid the routine hello and goodbye hugs.
“I know that it's really difficult to see our parents and not hug them, but it’s really for their safety,” says Johnson.
If you plan to share in a family meal, remain extra mindful. Now’s not the time to sip others’ drinks or take bites off of someone else’s plate. Even sharing a large bowl of potato salad, potluck style, can be risky.
“As we’re eating, we might push our hair out of our face, or scratch our nose, and if we’re all touching the exact same serving spoon, it just takes one person who’s infected to potentially infect the entire family,” says Johnson.
Use disposable cutlery and plates when possible, and have trash cans outside so that everyone can dispose of their own waste. Minimize the need for non-household members coming in and out of the house. Keep hand sanitizer available for before and after eating. If there’s an outdoor hose, you can also keep a bottle of soap nearby.
Of course, trips to the bathroom are inevitable. As always, washing your hands is crucial. If you’re at your parents’ house, use paper towels to open doors, and turn on the faucet. If they’re visiting you, you should request the same. Communication is key right now.
This goes for setting up a hangout in the first place. If you’re pulling out your hair with anxiety about risking your parents’ health, be honest. No one likes letting their parents down, but if you don’t feel ready yet for a visit, it’s important to communicate that.
“Try framing it in a way that lets them know that you’re doing it for their health and your health — it can make things a little easier,” says Johnson.
For persistent parents, suggest an extra socially distanced visit from the end of their driveway. The greater the distance you keep while wearing a mask, the more safety you can ensure, says Dr. Patricia Henwood, associate professor of emergency medicine at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, and leader of the Emergency Medicine COVID-19 Task Force at Jefferson Health.
“Just make sure to layout the ground rules first because maintaining that distance in a family setting can be challenging,” Henwood notes.