Coronavirus: Living the new normal

It was once normal for author Sherron Elise to greet as many as 100 readers with a handshake or hug during a booksigning. But that was before the coronavirus epidemic changed life as we knew it. When she’s finally able to get back to her fans, Elise said it will be a vastly different experience.

“First of all, if I do go to a big event with a lot of people, I’ll have a mask on,” she said. “And I don’t see how I’ll ever be comfortable hugging people ever again. I admit it’s going to be awkward because it’s such a part of who I am and what I do, but the old ways of doing things have changed.”

Elise is not alone. As many states begin to reopen — most without meeting the thresholds recommended by the White House — a new level of COVID-19 risk analysis begins for Americans. Should I go to the beach? What about the hair salon? A sit-down restaurant meal?

States are responding to the tremendous economic cost of the pandemic and Americans’ pent-up desire to be “normal” again. But public health experts remain cautious. In many areas, they note, COVID cases — and deaths — are still on the rise, and some fear new surges will follow the easing of restrictions.

“Reopening is not back to normal. It is trying to find ways to allow people to get back out to do things they want to do, and business to do business,” said Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer at the Association of State Health Officials. “We can’t pretend the virus has gone away. The vast majority of the population is still susceptible.”

The bottom line, health experts say, is people should continue to be vigilant: Maintain distance, wear masks, wash your hands — and take responsibility for your own health and that of those around you.

Here are some ways experts say you can expect things to change, creating a “new normal:”

WEARING MASKS

Expect to see masks continuing to be worn. While masks can reduce the amount of droplets expelled from the mouth and nose, they aren’t perfect. Droplets from sneezing, coughing or possibly even talking are considered the main way the coronavirus is transmitted, from landing either on another person or surface. Those who touch that surface may be at risk of infection if they then touch their face, especially the eyes or mouth.

GOING TO THE SALON

Many Black women say the hardest part of being on lockdown was not being able to go to the beauty salon. Now that they’re opening back up, if your beautician is following the rules, expect big changes. States and professional associations are recommending requiring reservations, limiting the number of customers inside the shop at a given time (so much for double-booking), installing Plexiglas barriers between stations, cleaning the chairs, sinks and other surfaces often, and having stylists and customers wear masks.

Some salons and barbers are servicing customers outside, which may reduce the risk because of better ventilation. Salons should also keep track of the customers they see, just in case they need to contact them later, should there be a reason to suspect a client or stylist had become infected.

EATING OUT

Many states and the CDC have recommendations for restaurants that limit capacity — some states say 25% — in addition to setting tables well apart, using disposable menus and single-serve condiments and requiring wait staff to wear masks. Expect to be turned away or forced to wait as restaurants adapt to the changes. Overall, decide how comfortable you are with the concept.

“If you’re going to go to a restaurant just to sit around and worry, then you might as well do takeout,” Plecia said.

TRAVELING

The travel industry is bracing for big changes and experts urge you to consider your options and whether you really need to hop on a plane, train or bus. Driving may be an option for avoiding close contact with strangers.

Airlines are adjusting to the new normal by doing deep cleaning between flights. Fresh and recirculated air goes through special HEPA filters. While there is little specific research yet on the coronavirus and air travel, studies on other respiratory and infectious diseases have generally concluded the overall risk is low, except for people within two rows of the infected person.

Maintaining distance on the plane and in the boarding process is key and some airlines are keeping the middle seat empty.

But if travel is not essential, Plescia reiterates that you should think twice.

“People who absolutely don’t have to travel should avoid doing it,” he said.

GOING TO CHURCH

“Reach out and touch your neighbor’”could take on new meaning in houses of worship. What was once a staple of fellowship in churches will change as people become antsy about hugging and shaking hands. Expect to see some churches do away with this practice altogether. And many people will simply opt to continue getting their praise on, online.

ATTENDING GATHERINGS

Large gatherings may remain rare. A report led by Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, said gatherings should be limited to 50 people or fewer. This would preclude many weddings, sporting events or concerts. It would rule out a full return to commuting by public transit. Many malls, gyms, restaurants and bars and places of worship might remain partly closed. So would many offices and factories.

CHANGING MINDSET

For all the attention to the science and politics of the coronavirus, another factor may be just as important in shaping life under the pandemic: the ways that people will change in response to it.

Changes in how we think, behave and relate to one another — some deliberate but many made unconsciously, some temporary but others potentially permanent — are already coming to define our new normal.

When the coronavirus outbreak is under control, aversion to strangers or large groups, and the threat of infection they could pose, might echo in our minds for years.

Our ability to focus, to feel comfortable around others, even to think more than a few days into the future, may diminish — with lasting consequences. But we may also feel the tug of a survival instinct that can activate during periods of widespread peril: a desire to cope by looking out for one’s neighbors.

Until the virus is subdued either by a vaccine or by a global campaign of strategically coordinated lockdowns — which one Harvard study estimated would take two years to work — daily life is likely to be defined by efforts to manage the pandemic.

Protecting yourself

Here are tips on staying safe when going out during the new normal:

BARBERSHOPS/SALONS

  • Wait outside or in the car until it is time for your appointment.
  • Do not take extra people with you, such as children, to lessen their contact with others.
  • Be prepared to have your temperature taken at some establishments.
  • Wear a face mask and wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before entering the shop.
  • Do not touch or handle retail supplies or magazines.
  • Do not interact with other customers and stay at least 6 feet away from them.
  • Keep your conversation with your barber or stylist to a minimum.
  • Leave the establishment as soon as your service has been rendered instead of waiting for fingernails or toenails to dry.

GYMS

  • Go the gym at off-peak hours when there are fewer people.
  • Stay at least 6 feet away from other patrons and avoid handshakes or high-fives.
  • Wipe down equipment before or after use with disinfectant wipes or sprays provided by the gym or that you bring from home. Get the surface completely wet and wait 30 seconds to one minute for it to air dry.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth when working out.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds when you’re done with equipment or use a hand sanitizer.

MALLS/RETAILERS

  • Wear a mask and stay at least 6 feet away from others while shopping and in check-out lines.
  • Shop when fewer people will be there, such as early in the morning or at night.
  • Disinfect the shopping cart with wipes you take with you or provided by the establishment.
  • If possible, use touchless payment without touching money, a card or a keypad. If not, use hand sanitizer right after paying. Use your own pen if you have to sign a receipt.

RESTAURANTS

  • Make reservations and order food ahead of time to minimize waiting time.
  • Eat outside of there is outdoor seating.
  • Wear a mask upon entrance and while in the restaurant until the food or drink is served.
  • Be seated as far away as possible from other customers.
  • Avoid buffets, salad bars and beverage stations.
  • Do not share appetizers, desserts or other plates of food.
  • Order drinks in cans, bottles or disposable cups.

Sources: CDC, Defender Files, Office of the Texas Governor, Texas Dept. of Licensing & Regulation