Safe to venture out? Here's what 3 health experts will do with restrictions reduced in Iowa

Under recent proclamations, more Iowa business are reopening

Manager Joab Upah and his wife, Rachel Upah, carry a table out of the dining area Wednesday while preparing to reopen at
Manager Joab Upah and his wife, Rachel Upah, carry a table out of the dining area Wednesday while preparing to reopen at Cedar River Landing in Cedar Rapids. They were moving tables to meet the 6-foot social distancing requirement. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

As the state government begins allowing businesses and public spaces to reopen, you might be having difficulty deciding when and where to venture out.

Across Iowa, hair salons, malls and gyms are reopening, though at no more than half capacity and with social distancing requirements. In Eastern Iowa, restaurants are again able to offer sit-down dining — but with many of the same caveats including limits on group size and distancing.

Many establishments have reopened but others are taking it slow. Several told The Gazette they’re going beyond the steps legally required to help keep their employees and customers safe.

The Washington Post asked three public health experts to say where they generally will — and won’t — go, how they’ll make those decisions and what precautions they’ll take against the novel coronavirus.

“Nothing is without risk,” said William Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “But you can weigh the risks. ... It’s going to be a series of judgment calls people will make every day.”

Q: How are you thinking about when and where you’ll venture out?

A: All three said they’ll leave home more often only as COVID-19 cases in their communities decline and keep doing so.

Amanda Castel, an epidemiology professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, said she plans to wait until her community meets established criteria, including a 14-day drop in the percentage of people testing positive.


Even then, she said, “I’ll think about it as ‘Is it nice to go or do I need to go?’”

Boris Lushniak, dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said he will take a “tempered” approach. While he wants to support the local economy, he said, “I’ll still be very wary of my environment.”

In general, they’ll consider 3 key points:

• Whether they would be indoors or outdoors (Outdoors is safer);

• Their proximity to employees and other customers (Can they stay at least 6 feet from others?);

• How much time the outing would entail (Less is better).

As Castel said, “I certainly wouldn’t linger in places.”

“I’ll look at the duration and intensity of potential exposure,” Petri said. “A very leisurely lunch at a restaurant with people at the table next to you is probably a riskier encounter than picking up an oil filter at the auto store.”

Before entering any business, they said they will check:

• Are all staff members wearing masks?

• Are employees staying at least 6 feet from one another?

• Is there hand sanitizer or another way for workers and customers to clean or disinfect their hands easily?

• Are there few enough customers that all can remain at least 6 feet apart?

“If I can’t maintain the 6-foot rule,” Lushniak said, “I’ll stay away.”

Q: What other precautions will you take?

A: In addition to social distancing and wearing masks, the experts said they will:

• Carry hand sanitizer and use it when entering and leaving businesses or public spaces;

• Focus on not touching their faces;

• Use the bathroom before leaving home to avoid public restrooms;

• Bring water to avoid drinking fountains.

Q: Will you eat in a restaurant?


A: Castel took the most cautious approach, saying she probably won’t go to a sit-down restaurant for a while because fellow diners can’t wear masks while eating and drinking. Instead, she said, she’ll continue dining “out” via delivery or curbside pickup.

Lushniak said he’ll first check whether servers are wearing masks, how many people are inside and how far apart tables are spaced.

If a restaurant meets those requirements, he said, he’d wear a mask as much as possible to protect others — and bring his own pen to sign the credit card bill.

Iowa’s order says groups can be no larger than six people and there must be at least 6 feet between parties. And it prohibits self-serve food and beverages like buffets and salad bars.

Q: Will you go to a barbershop or hair salon?

A: All three said yes, but only if they and the barber or hair stylist wear masks.

Importantly, they will try to limit their time indoors by seeking a haircut outside or washing their hair at home before heading in. They also suggested putting off more time-consuming treatments like hair coloring until after infections have declined further over a longer period.

“In-and-out is better with an indoor environment,” Lushniak said.

Castel said she’ll call ahead to ask what precautions a salon is taking, including whether cuts or hair treatments are available outdoors.

Before entering, the experts said, they’ll check whether chairs and hair-washing basins are spaced far enough apart and customers can avoid waits with others.

The Iowa order requires that salons and barbershops space customers at least 6 feet apart and offer services by appointment only — no walk-ins. Several salon operators told The Gazette said they’d ask customers to wait outside in their cars — not inside in a room — until their stylist was ready.

Q: Will you go to a department store or indoor shopping mall?


A: Being indoors raises the risk, they say, so getting in and out quickly is important. If they go, the experts say, they will try to do so during off-hours, when they’d have less company.

“If you walk in and the place is buzzing, scan the environment,” Castel said. “Are people wearing masks? Can you socially distance?”

They said they’ll also be vigilant about not touching their faces and sanitizing their hands as soon as possible because of the number of high-touch surfaces, including clothes hangers, checkout counters and dressing room door handles.

The Iowa order requires malls and stores to operate at no more than half capacity and “implement reasonable measures under the circumstances” of each site to maintain social distancing. Common seating areas must stay closed.

Q: Would you go to a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship?

A: Castel said she’d stick with online services because of the difficulty of remaining at a safe distance in large gatherings, particularly indoors. If she did go, she said, she’d make sure to stay at least 6 feet from others and wear a mask.

“I certainly don’t expect people to be taking Communion at this point,” Castel said.

Lushniak said his decision would depend on the density of the crowd, whether worshippers are wearing masks and if there is hand sanitizer at entrances and exits.

Petri said he’s concerned about the length of worship services, where people often congregate for an hour or more. He said he’d consider whether to go based on the amount of infection in his community.


The Iowa order exempts “spiritual and religious gatherings” from its group size restrictions. It says the activities “shall implement reasonable measures under the circumstances of each gathering to ensure social distancing” and other health precautions.

Q: Will you work out in a gym or do downward dog in a yoga studio?

A: “Those are tough” Castel said of indoor exercise facilities with shared equipment. “Disinfecting surfaces is going to be critical.”

Lushniak said he’d be concerned about the higher risk of transmission from people near him breathing faster and harder while working out. He said he’ll probably continue exercising outdoors until the final phase of reopening.

Iowa’s order says that fitness centers and gyms must operate at no more than half capacity, limit group class sizes and keep customers at least 6 feet apart — including on machines. The facilities also must take “reasonable measures” to ensure healthy hygiene.

This section of the Iowa order does not refer specifically to a yoga studio but to a “fitness center, health club, health spa, or gym.”

Q: Will you socialize more?

A: Castel said yes, but only if she feels “compelled,” and then only outdoors. She’ll make any small get-togethers “bring your own” everything — food, drinks, glasses, plates, utensils — so people can remain at least 6 feet apart and avoid touching the same surfaces.

Lushniak said he’ll socialize only outdoors and then with fewer than 10 people, at a safe distance and in masks.

Petri said he’ll probably “ease back into” socializing with one or two friends and then only outdoors, at a distance and in masks.

All three say they’ll avoid socializing with anyone who is at higher risk of COVID-19.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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