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With cities and states across the country continuing to ease restrictions that were designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, health experts are warning people to stay safe and remain physically distant.

On Monday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger urged people to wear masks when in public, as health officials fear people are not taking the virus seriously enough.

"We know that if we're going to minimize the risk to people in our community, if we're going to minimize the spread in our community, the masks are extremely important," Coppinger said.

The coronavirus travels on respiratory droplets released when someone coughs, sneezes or even speaks. Masks help block some of those droplets from getting out into the air and potentially infecting someone else.

Beyond wearing a mask, there are other safety precautions people should take to reduce the risk of being infected or infecting others, said Erin Bromage, associate professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

During a media call this week, Bromage detailed several best practices for people to keep in mind as restrictions are eased and some feel eager to return to normal activities.

How do I know if my mask is working?

A mask with a strong seal around the nose and chin offers the most protection because air is being filtered through the mask, rather than coming in from the sides, Bromage said.

"The only way that they work in protecting you is that if you take a breath in and you feel it collapse onto your face, you know most of the air is coming through the material and providing a little bit of filtering for you," Bromage said.

In general, masks are used more to protect others than yourself, since they block the release of some droplets that spread the disease, he said. A good rule to follow is to treat everyone, including yourself, as though they are infected because people can be asymptomic and still spread the virus.

 

Should I wear a face shield along with a mask?

Face shields protect people from the droplets that could enter through the eyes or stick to someone's skin and eventually get on their hands. Face shields are most helpful when interacting near someone in a confined space, Bromage said.

"If you find yourself in close quarters at the checkout or something like that, face shields can work well in that," he said.

However, the plastic around your eyes will not protect you from a superspreading event— when a lot of the virus is circulating in the air around you — because the face shield allows ventilation from the sides and the virus can get in that way.

It is also important to know that people need a lot of the virus to get into their eyes to become infected, as compared to just a few particles of the virus getting into the lungs, Bromage said. Maintaining a physical distance of six feet and having some type of guard between you and others during close encounters, like at the supermarket checkout, should offer enough protection, he said.

 

Is it safe to go back to the doctor or dentist?

Returning to your doctor for appointments, especially for kids getting vaccinations, should happen sooner rather than later. Most hospitals have enough personal protective equipment and doctors know how to control infections, Bromage said.

"So many people have put off appointments, it's important to get back in the office for well-checks or well-visits, for both kids and adults," he said. "It is safe."

Dentists and doctors should be wearing higher quality masks than most people in the public, so the risk of you getting infected on a visit is low. If dentists are opening up appointments, it is not much riskier for you to go there than it is for you to go grocery shopping, he said.

 

If I am going to a restaurant, should I sit indoors or outdoors?

For you to be infected, there needs to be enough of the virus built up in the air. This is more likely to happen indoors, since air is not circulating as much and the room is confined.

Bromage said a good example is to think about someone smoking. If the person is smoking indoors, you are much more likely to smell it and for the smell to get worse than if you are outdoors.

The same is true for the virus collecting in the air, he said.

If you are maintaining distance outdoors, it is unlikely the virus will build up enough in the air for you to become infected, Bromage said.

For people who do go to an indoor restaurant, the safest place to sit will be near an open window, he said.

 

Is going to the gym safe?

Gyms have been responsible for a cluster of cases among 20-to-40-year-olds in China, Bromage said. These places increase the risk of infection since people are breathing deeply and either exhaling a lot of droplets into the air or inhaling a lot of droplets.

However, some gyms can be relatively safe, Bromage said.

"The upside with gyms is that they are these huge cavernous spaces which gives you more volume," he said. "And if they don't have good air conditioning, as in big ducted air conditioning, the place would absolutely stink. So most gyms have actually invested in good air exchange and good air filtration."

Since people will be breathing deeply, if you are going to the gym, a distance of 10 feet between you and others is better than six feet, Bromage said.

People should avoid spin classes or other group exercise classes that involve being in close quarters with others in a confined space, he said. However, yoga or pilates classes are likely more safe than gyms because it allows for more distance between people, and people are not breathing as hard.

 

What about beaches or swimming pools?

If you maintain physical distance at the beach or in the water, you should be OK, Bromage said. Wear a mask when you are in the parking lot or near the bathrooms, he said.

A well-maintained swimming pool with chlorine is also safe. The greatest risk for people is being too close to others, he said.

 

Do I need to wipe down my groceries or sanitize my mail?

You do not need to do anything with mail or packages, Bromage said. Even if the person delivering your mail is infected, that person is likely touching hundreds of packages and is therefore less likely to leave an infectious amount of the virus on any single piece of mail.

"Unless somebody coughed directly on it and you touched it and you rubbed your eyes, I don't see this as being a risk that you need to worry about too much," he said.

Bromage said he wipes down everything that goes into his refrigerator or freezer because the virus lasts for up to 14 days in cooler conditions.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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