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You can visit relatives but take precautions

Extending your 'social bubble'

Bernard J. Wolfson Kaiser Family Foundation | 7/17/2020, midnight

Cooped up too long, yearning for a day at the beach or a night on the town — and enticed by the easing of restrictions just as the warm weather arrived — many people have bolted from the confines of home. And who can blame them?

But Houston — and San Antonio and Phoenix and Miami and Los Angeles — we have a problem.

COVID-19 is spiking in Texas, Arizona, Florida, California and other states, forcing officials once again to shut down bars, gyms and the indoor-dining sections of restaurants.

But that does not mean we can’t spend time with the important people in our lives. Our mental health is too important to avoid them.

You can expand your social bubble beyond the household — if you heed now-familiar health guidelines and even take extra precautions: Limit the number of people you see at one time, and wear a mask if meeting indoors is the only feasible option or if you can’t stay at least six  feet from one another outdoors. Disinfect chairs and tables, and wash your hands, before and after the visit. If food and drink are on the agenda, it’s best for all involved to bring their own, since sharing can raise the risk of infection.

Arthur Reingold, a professor of epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and his wife, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have begun spending time with another couple around their age who have a large patio. “They have us go around the back; they don’t have us go through the house,” says Reingold, 71. “We sit on chairs that are a good 10 to 12 feet away from each other, and we talk. We bring our food, and they bring their food.”

And they don’t wear masks. “I personally believe the risk from that situation, even without a mask, is pretty minimal,” Reingold says. “But if people wanted to try to do that and wear a mask, I don’t think that would be unreasonable.”

And while we are on the topic of masks, please remember they don’t make you impervious to infection. “Your eyes are part of the respiratory tree. You can get infected through them very easily,” says George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC-San Francisco. If you are medically vulnerable, or just want to be extra careful, consider wearing a face shield or goggles.

Most of us have wrestled with the question of how big a gathering is too big. It’s impossible to give an exact answer, but the smaller the better. And keep in mind there is no such thing as zero risk.

In the U.S. as a whole, the average infection rate is currently about 1 percent to 2 percent, which means one or two people in a group of 100 would typically be infected, says Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. In any individual setting, however, these percentages don’t necessarily apply, she says. And a gathering in an area where the COVID-19 rate is surging — or already high — is more dangerous than one of the same size in a place where it’s not. So stay informed about the status of the pandemic in your area.