All of Pennsylvania, excluding Lebanon County, is now officially in the green phase. This means businesses are allowed to reopen and most restrictions are lifted. Social lives can expand, with groups up to 250 people allowed to gather.
In Philadelphia, we’re easing into green in stages. But on July 3, businesses and attractions such as museums, libraries, casinos, and malls will get the green light across the city, too. (Indoor dining and gyms in Philadelphia isn’t expected to resume until August 1.)
In other words, after months on hiatus, we’re allowed to resume once-normal activities, even if it looks a little different than before, with masks and social distancing still the norm. But experts emphasize that the reopening doesn’t mean the coronavirus has disappeared. Every time you leave your house, a level of risk remains.
So what does the green phase mean if you’re considered “high risk”? If you’re high risk — 65 years or older or have a serious underlying medical condition — and become infected, your likelihood of developing severe complications and needing a trip to the hospital are higher.
So, should you continue to stay at home, or is it now OK to book a salon appointment and have friends over for dinner?
Answers among experts are mixed.
“It’s actually relatively simple to reduce transmission — it comes down to reducing the amount of virus you’re exposed to by wearing masks, social distancing, and staying outside,” says Seth Welles, professor of epidemiology at Drexel University.
The problem, says Welles, is that businesses can’t always ensure social distancing. Not everyone who enters will always be wearing a mask correctly. And most environments are indoors, sometimes with poor ventilation. All of this increases your risk of contracting the virus, and although case numbers are decreasing in Pennsylvania, some say it’s not worth testing your luck, especially if you’re high risk.
“Regardless of what phase we’re in, you need to maintain as many elements of the red phase as possible,” Krys Johnson, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Temple University, says of those who are high risk.
Johnson says that proceeding with caution may be even more important now than in the yellow phase. In the green phase, she predicts people will become increasingly lax about social distancing and wearing masks, as seen in other states where restrictions have already loosened.
People are also likely to start traveling more, which may increase the spread of the virus. While regionally we’re seeing lower numbers, coronavirus cases are increasing nationwide and globally.
“We have to look at the bigger picture,” 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. “In many places, cases are on the rise, and as people start moving around, the risk continues, especially for those who have more risk factors.”
If considered high risk, Henwood advises that you continue to leave the house only for essential activities. No, a hair cut doesn’t count as essential. She acknowledges that while this is the ideal scenario, you should talk to your doctor to assess your individual risk, and identify what’s right for you. Every person and situation is different, and there are few blanket rules when it comes to navigating a pandemic.
“People have to take this individual risk versus benefit approach,” says Henwood. “If someone is struggling from not having social contact, that needs to be taken into account. Unfortunately, COVID is going to be around for a while, and it’s understandably a challenging situation for people to stay isolated indefinitely.”
Some experts say it’s OK to start expanding your daily routine and social circle, if done with extra caution. Pick the parts of the green phase that make most sense for you.
“I’d pass on inside dining if you’re high risk,” advises Welles, who also says you couldn’t pay him to dine in a restaurant right now. “You’re talking about relatively small areas, with potentially infectious people that aren’t wearing masks.”
You don’t need to skip outdoor dining, though, says Welles. Just be picky about where you take a seat, and who you choose to dine with. Survey the restaurant to get an idea of the precautions they’re taking. Are the staff all wearing their masks correctly? Is there six feet or more between each table? Are they being strict about customers wearing masks when not seated? If not, choose a different restaurant. When thinking about who will join you, your safest bet is to stick to people who are in your household.
“There’s been a downward trend of cases, so the likelihood of being exposed is on its way down, and you don’t necessarily need to remain in your house, but truthfully, you shouldn’t be eating out every night or regularly putting yourself in high risk situations no matter who you are,” notes Welles.
Not only should you limit your outings, but limit how much time you spend out, says Welles. Don’t settle in for a leisurely three-hour-long dinner or linger at the barbershop after your haircut. Do what you’re there to do, and then leave.
It’s a good idea to assess safety measures of any business before entering. If you choose to return to your gym, for example, ask how often they’re sanitizing equipment, if check-ins are contactless, and if rooms have been rearranged to create more space. As always, weigh your options and opt for the least risky.
“A very distanced, quiet yoga class is different than a confined gym with heavy sweating and heavy breathing, but this is all on a spectrum of different unknowns that we need to take into consideration,” says Henwood.
With additional safety requirements in place, not everyone agrees that you need to be fearful or overly cautious.
“You can go to a gym if you make sure to social distance — exercise benefits everyone,” says Bucks County Health Director Dr. David Damsker. “If a business doesn’t look like they’re following guidelines, then just don’t go there, but there’s no stay-at-home order, and that’s not the message we want to get out anymore.”
Damsker says that the yellow phase, in which case numbers continued to drop, was the real turning point for the region. And, just like in the yellow phase, people in the green phase are still encouraged — or in some cases required — to wear masks and socially distance.
“Ninety-eight percent of businesses were open as of yellow,” says Damsker. “Places that have a lot of people crammed together still aren’t a good idea, but concerts and other situations like that aren’t really happening right now.”
There is one place Damsker says to avoid: bars. In states that have already reopened, bars have notoriously become hot spots for spreading the coronavirus. If you’re high risk, pour yourself a drink at home until safety measures are “fully ironed out,” he says.
As for the younger crowd, whether frequenting bars or not, they are who Damsker stresses need to be extra mindful right now.
“Younger, healthy people need to be smarter. They tend to think they can do anything they want, but they’re the ones who can give it to other people,” he says.