What Are the Rules of Social Distancing? We Asked 4 Doctors All the Questions We’re Still Wondering

editor@purewow.com (PureWow)

We’re all on the same page with the major rules of social distancing: No contact with people outside our homes and when we do leave our houses, we have to stay at least 6 feet away from other people. But what about if we want to go out for a walk? Can we still order takeout or have our housekeeper come over to clean the house? And what are we supposed to do with that box from FedEx? 

There are a lot of unknowns right now, so it’s totally understandable if you find yourself constantly wondering, “Wait, what are the rules of social distancing?” So we assembled a team of four doctors: Snehal Doshi, M.D., a neonatologist and the CEO of Millennium Neonatology; Kevin Kathrotia, M.D., a neonatologist and COO of Millennium Neonatology; Mary Jacobson, M.D., an OB-GYN and Chief Medical Director at Alpha Medical; and Eduardo Dolhun, M.D., a family physician and founder of DripDrop.

They gave us their professional opinions on all of the common situations we’re finding ourselves in—and confused about—below. (And they didn’t always agree.)

Can I pick up an order from a restaurant?

Dr. Jacobson: “You can still [get takeout], but the key is to limit your household’s exposure to the virus while doing so. My biggest tip is to pay ahead online or over the phone to limit the physical exchange of cash or cards.”

Dr. Dolhun: “Yes, if you must. But make sure a single member of the household is on takeout duty, rather than having everyone go out as a group. As much as possible—for all of these scenarios—we want to respect the shelter in place guidelines [currently in place to one degree or another in 46 states], and eliminating excess trips is one way to do this.” 

Dr. Kathrotia: “Yes, but you can’t just take the to-go box, put it on your lap and eat out of it. When you bring a container home, take the food out of the packaging and reheat it in the oven at at least 350 degrees F. for 2 to 3 minutes to kill any germs. 

Put your meal onto your own plate and take all that plastic and packaging and throw it away. I’d also Lysol the counter that the bag sat on to kill everything, too, and wash your hands before you eat.”

Dr. Doshi: “Call ahead to see what practices they’re following, like contactless food preparation. There’s a restaurant by me that has you pay ahead of time over the phone. Then, when you come in, you shout out your name for your order. Someone brings it over to a table while you stand at a distance. They walk away, you grab the bag and leave. It’s not crazy to call before you head over and ask that the restaurant do something like this for you.”

What about getting my mail? And can I accept a package?

Dr. Jacobson: “[Mail] is still happening of course, but I would caution everyone to use gloves and give the surface of the package a quick wipe-down. But most importantly: Wash your hands after disposing of the packaging.”

Dr. Dolhun: “This is inevitable. While some people advise allowing the packages to sit in a home untouched for a 72-hour window, my advice is to be practical. You can open the package with disposable gloves and clean the contents with an alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or a chloride spray or wipe.”

Dr. Kathrotia: “We’ve basically set up a whole processing center in our garage. We know now that the virus can live on plastic and cardboard packaging for at least 24 hours, so if what’s in the package is nonperishable, we’ll leave it in the garage for a day or two before opening it. Everything is opened out there, the boxes are immediately thrown away, and then whatever we ordered is brought inside, Lysol’d, and we wash our hands.”

Dr. Doshi: “If you can, don’t bring the box inside your house. Open it outside, spray down whatever it is you got with a disinfectant and wash your hands.”

Can my housekeeper come over?

Dr. Jacobson: “I would cancel housekeeping and cleaning services right now. Ultimately, limiting all non-essential individuals entering and leaving the household is really important to limiting spread. If it’s possible for you, I’d consider maintaining wages for these workers while social distancing prevents them from doing their jobs.”

Dr. Dolhun: “I highly recommend rolling up your sleeves and doing your own cleaning. I do it, and I am exceedingly busy and it’s a major challenge, but the risks of having someone come during this highly vulnerable state we are in as a society are very high. As you are cleaning, think about the life you may be saving by doing your own dishes or laundry.”

Dr. Kathrotia: “If a housekeeper is still working right now, they’re likely being exposed to multiple houses or apartments a day and bringing all of those germs with them into your home too. We’ve stopped it in our home, and it was actually initiated by the housekeepers themselves who decided they needed to take a break for their own safety. This is a no.”

Dr. Doshi: “Your own health is more important than having someone else wash the dishes. Hopefully people have enough time on their hands right now to get to these chores themselves. It’s a nonessential service.”

What about ordering delivery from a restaurant?  

Dr. Jacobson: “Ask that your food be left outside the door to limit physical contact. This is mostly to protect the food deliverer, who is interfacing with many people in a day. Often, a small, local restaurant that delivers directly is the best choice since that delivery person interacts with fewer people.”

Dr. Dolhun: “In terms of food safety, be aware that coronavirus can be transmitted on the food and the food packaging. The best thing to do is wash your hands after you receive the delivery, wash your hands again before eating your food and resist the urge to eat out of the carton or container and put it on a plate instead.”

Dr. Kathrotia: “This is OK and can be done in a way that’s similar to pickup. A lot of restaurants are offering contact-less delivery, where the food is left outside. It’s also best to take care of the payment over the phone or through an app.”

Dr. Doshi: “A lot of people are having it dropped off at their door and the delivery person will ring the bell and leave or the restaurant will send you a notification that the food is waiting outside so that you don’t have to come in contact with each other. It’s safer for everyone this way. I’d also treat the food same as if you picked up yourself—throw out the packaging, reheat it and wash your hands before eating.”

Can I go outside for a run or walk?

Dr. Jacobson: “I think this is still safe but with a few key guidelines to remember: Only go on runs, walks or bike rides outside with members of your own household or alone, and stay 6 feet away from other people who are out and about. It’s crucial to stay away from crowded public areas like parks and beaches. I would caution everyone not to meet up for non-essential social gatherings with other households outdoors because the 6-foot limit becomes easily blurred. Try a video call instead!”

Dr. Dolhun: “Mental and physical health are important and very much linked. You can go out but be mindful to keep six to even 20 feet away from any other runners or walkers, particularly when exercising, because you’re breathing more heavily and expelling more particles into the air.”

Dr. Kathrotia: “I really think it depends on where you are—a city versus the suburbs—but my default answer is no, I wouldn’t say [everyone] should still be doing this. In the suburbs, it’s easier to stay 6 feet or more away from other people, but in a city like New York or Chicago, it’s a little tougher, especially if they’ve closed parks. You can’t distance yourself from other people if everyone has the same idea and goes to the same places. If you have to, wear a mask and go outside super early in the morning or late at night when fewer people will be out. I don’t like it, but I get up at 5 a.m. to go outside  Pets have to go too but they’ll have to wait like the rest of us. It’s tough! 

Dr. Doshi: “Exercising is important, but there are ways to do it that don’t involve going outside and being around other people. If you live in a city and have roof access, go up there for some fresh air or even sit by an open window. To exercise, though, you can do this inside easily. You can do bodyweight moves like pushups, squats, lunges and see if your gym is offering free classes online or streaming through social, a lot are offering that now. Check in with your local YMCA for free streamable classes. Even Nike and Adidas are offering free premium workouts online now to help people out.”

How risky is it to go to the grocery store or pharmacy?

Dr. Jacobson: “Grocery shopping is still an essential activity, though many stores do facilitate delivery. Almost all pharmacies have remote prescription refill and delivery services, so you shouldn’t need to leave the home. But if you have to, limit your risk by having only one person from your household make the trip, go at non-popular times of day and stay 6 feet away from others in lines. And of course, wash your hands thoroughly before and after the trip.

Dr. Dolhun: “Whenever possible and especially for those that are higher risk, use delivery options. Local and chain grocers and pharmacies are offering this now. If delivery is not an option, elect one household member to go to the store and reduce the number of trips to the bare minimum. While in the store, try not to use your cell phone to help reduce germ spread and, if possible, wear latex or disposable gloves. When you get home, wash your hands and any produce with soapy water. Disinfect plastic packaging or, if you can, put the food you bought into Tupperware or glassware and just throw out the packaging.”

Dr. Kathrotia: “The stay-at-home orders don’t preclude you from getting food. Some stores, like Trader Joe’s, basically have a bouncer at the door and are only letting a few people in at a time, which helps. But be smart when you’re out—wear gloves and a mask if you have them, or even wrap a scarf or something around your face to help protect yourself and stay away from other people.” 

Dr. Doshi: “It’s really important to minimize your exposure. Don’t go to a store for one item, or from store to store for different things. Make a list and plan out everything you can get in one place instead. Limit the amount of time you spend in the store, too. This is a get in, get out and get back home situation because everywhere you go adding to the exposure you could have with the virus. Make each trip count. And a note on bringing produce home: Rinse everything well for at least 20 seconds and don’t put soap directly on fruits and vegetables if you can help it. It’s also probably safest to peel everything you can right now.

Can my home health aide continue to visit?

Dr. Jacobson: “The best practice here—as tough a spot as it may be—is to cancel non-essential in-home services. Any required health services that can be conducted remotely (like prescription refills or mental health consultations), should be facilitated through telemedicine to limit physical interaction. If physical care is required and a household member cannot step in, then it becomes essential. Healthy in-home workers should adhere to strict, conservative safety guidelines when entering and leaving the home—wearing gloves, protective masks and frequently washing their hands.”

Dr. Dolhun: “If the health aide is critical to the care of the patient and a family member cannot step in to assist, have the home healthcare aide practice best-in-class methods: If the caregiver is ill or has been in contact with a sick person, then they cannot work. Period. Otherwise, they should arrive in clean clothes, gloves and with a mask. They should change their clothes when they get to your house and throw out the gloves. They should then wash hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and place gloves on again and continue to use the mask during the entire session.”

Dr. Kathrotia: “The risk of an aide coming into the house is less than the risk of someone being in a hospital, surrounded by many other people who could give them the virus. But you have to ask that person to wash their hands, hopefully they have a mask or even a medical gown to wear over their clothes. If they take public transportation to get to you, their jacket should be left in a separate area from you and people in your house or maybe they even change into different clothes when they get there. Worse case, they can even wear an old bathrobe over their clothes.”

Dr. Doshi: “If you can have a family member do this job, you should. In my own family, my dad recently had a lung transplant and my parents live two blocks away. He had a home health nurse, but we decided that she didn’t need to come anymore and risk exposing him to the virus. Instead, I go over and take care of what needs to be done and I taught my mom how to do everything, too.”

Can my nanny still come over to take care of my kids?

Dr. Jacobson: “For working parents, this seems like a necessity, but the risk is greater than the reward here. The number of people coming into your house should be severely limited.”

Dr. Dolhun: “Optimally, it’s best not to have anyone enter your home that is not living with you. This is difficult for many households, so if you must have home help, here are some practical suggestions: First, tell them to wash their hands constantly, especially when they enter your home, and if they touch their face, cough, sneeze, or go to the bathroom. Secondly, talk to them about how they’re getting to your house—are they taking public transportation? Can you help avoid this by picking them up and dropping them off?”

Dr. Kathrotia: “If you really need the help, then you need the help, especially if you’re working from home. But it’s a measured risk that you’re taking. The best you can do is have it be the same nanny every day who is only having contact with your family. You should have a reasonable amount of confidence that they’re not exposed to many other people, too. It’s definitely not a good idea to have a different nanny come in every day because you can’t control who these people are seeing or what they’re doing outside of your home.”

Dr. Doshi: “That’s definitely a calculated risk. If this person lives with other people, you don’t know how many others they’re coming into contact with. Those housemates are exposing your nanny to all of those other people by being in the same house, and then the nanny comes to your house and brings it all with them. How essential is their support right now? If you can’t live without them, maybe they wear a mask and wash their hands a lot more, but you won’t know if the risk was worth it or not until they or you get sick.”

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