As states continue reopening nonessential businesses and easing social distancing measures intended to curb the United States' new coronavirus epidemic, many Americans are weighing the risk of resuming activities like eating at a restaurant or getting a haircut.
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To gain some insight, the New York Times' "The Upshot" reached out to about 6,000 epidemiologists with a survey asking for their thoughts on when they are likely to resume 20 common activities. "The Upshot" sent the survey to members of the Society for Epidemiologic Research, as well as to individual epidemiologists.
According to "The Upshot," some of the respondents said they didn't feel comfortable making predictions on when it would be safe for Americans to resume certain activities, because they didn't want to make guesses regarding potential treatments for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, or assumptions about data regarding new coronavirus infections. A group of 301 epidemiologists in a letter responding to the survey wrote, "Our concern is that your multiple choice options are based only on calendar time. This limits our ability to provide our expert opinions about when we will feel safe enough to stop social distancing ourselves."
But a total of 511 epidemiologists responded to the survey throughout the last week of May, "The Upshot" reports. "The Upshot" cautions that the epidemiologists' answers are not intended to serve as public guidelines on when Americans can resume certain activities, because they reflect "respondents' individual life circumstances" and "risk tolerance" to the new coronavirus. Instead, the answers should be viewed as a reflection of epidemiologists' personal "expectations about when there will be widespread testing, contact tracing, treatment, and vaccination for Covid-19."
When epidemiologists expect Americans will be able to safely resume these 20 common activities
According to "The Upshot," nearly all 511 respondents agreed that face masks or coverings will be needed for a long time in order to safely resume public activities, and that activities outdoors and in small groups are preferable to indoor activities and activities with large crowds.
Many of the 511 epidemiologists said they already feel safe seeking in-person medical care, socializing with small groups of people outside, and bringing in their mail without taking precautions intended to protect them against the new coronavirus. But many said it could be more than one year before they will feel safe attending concerts, sporting events, or religious services.
Anala Gossai, a scientist at Flatiron Health, said she plans to socialize outdoors this summer. "Fresh air, sun, socialization, and a healthy activity will be just as important for my mental health as my physical well-being," Gossai said.
But respondents disagreed significantly on when it might be safe to resume some activities, "The Upshot" reports. For example, 41% of respondents said they'd get a haircut now or this summer, while 19% said they'd wait at least a year. Some respondents said they think hair salons are generally safe, as they're not typically crowded and they have to follow certain hygiene requirements. However, others said getting a haircut could be high risk given the face-to-face contact that typically occurs during the service.
Sally Picciotto from the University of California-Berkeley was among the 18% of respondents who said they'd wait at least a year before returning to an office facility. "As much as I hate working at home, I think that working in a shared indoor space is the most dangerous thing we do," she said.
Further, a small percentage of respondents said they wouldn't do nearly any of the 20 activities until a vaccine against the new coronavirus is developed and widely distributed. Meanwhile, a number of respondents said they might never partake in the activities again. In particular, 6% of respondents said they'll never again great people with a hug or handshake, while 42% said they won't do so for at least a year.
"The worst casualty of the epidemic" is the "loss of human contact," Eduardo Franco, from McGill University, said.
But even when people resume the activities, they'll likely be different than they were before the new coronavirus epidemic—and remain so for a long time, the respondents generally agreed.
T. Christopher Bond, an associate director at Bristol Myers Squibb, said people often ask him when everything will get back to normal. "At first I told them: 'The world has changed and will be different for a long time. This is the crisis of our lifetime and we need to embrace it,'" he said. "But that depressed them. So now I say, 'Well, we know more every day'" (Bui et. al., "The Upshot," New York Times, 6/8).