People walk at Laguna Beach, California on May 20.

People walk at Laguna Beach, California on May 20. mikeledray/

So, What Can We Do Now?

A guide to staying safe this summer.

Staying at home for months is an onerous thing to ask of people, but what it means is easy enough to understand: Unless necessary to keep your job or keep yourself alive, you just don’t leave. When American mayors and governors began asking people to shelter in place to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the United States, a country generally stewing in deep political acrimony, was unusually united in doing what was asked.

Stay-at-home orders were implemented for many reasons: to stop the virus from silently spreading between people, to prevent the collapse of hospital systems, to allow public-health officials to build up testing capacity, to hire contact tracers to snuff out hot spots before they became full-fledged outbreaks. But at the most basic level, shutdowns bought some time for scientists faced with a novel pathogen to figure out what the hell was going on in the first place. How does the virus spread? What determines how sick someone gets?

Full answers to those questions are still being determined, but preliminary research on outbreaks across the globe has provided some important clues about which behaviors and activities matter most for coronavirus transmission. Taken together, they create a rough sketch of risk and reward that can help people shake off mounting quarantine fatigue. These little bits of scientific relief have arrived just in time: Summer is here, and more states are starting to reopen, forcing people to figure out their own methods of risk assessment in their daily lives.

Public-health experts now have to determine how to deliver the message of moderation in real time, and hope that phrases like spectrum of risk or contact budget will resonate. No matter what term ends up lodged in people’s brains alongside social distancing and flatten the curve, the reality is the same: Thinking about safety as binary isn’t going to cut it anymore. The key to responsibly reopening your life is understanding what makes you and those around you more or less safe at any given moment.

All of the experts I spoke with emphasized that, overall, continuing to stay home as much as possible is still the safest thing anyone can do. “The appropriate precautions haven’t changed, in my view, until we have more data,” Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, wrote in an email. But they all also acknowledged that many people have grown predictably weary of isolation, and that reopened businesses, like the now-infamous poolside bar at Lake of the Ozarks, will be attractive diversions for some this summer. Extreme isolation isn’t sustainable, and it has to be replaced with something.

“Some people are in a near-panic still, whereas others are completely blasé about it, and we need to find sort of a middle ground,” Tara Kirk Sell, a professor and risk-communication researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told me. “That’s a complicated dance, but it’s also going to be what everyone needs to do going forward.” First and foremost, she told me, people should be taking basic precautions to protect those around them: wearing masks in public, respecting other people’s space, and understanding that the people you encounter might be in far more danger from catching the disease than you or your immediate family.

Once those precautions are in place, you can start to evaluate different types of errands or leisure. Of the handful of things to consider when deciding how safe a situation might be, Kirk Sell said ventilation is the first one to think about. “If I’m outdoors, my level of concern really goes way down,” Kirk Sell told me. “It’s not the beach that’s a problem; it’s if people then decide to pack bars and restaurants when coming off the beach.” Stick to the surf and sand; skip the boardwalk.

Similar outdoor activities—hiking, camping, jogging, reading a book on a blanket in the park—are all relatively innocuous for most people. Inside, walls and HVAC systems contain and recirculate air that may be full of contagious microbes. Outside, droplets disperse quickly in the open air, so you’re far less likely to unwittingly stick your face in a cloud of viral droplets and keep it there long enough to let a bunch of them inside your body.