Part of an occasional series answering readers’ questions about Maine. 

After two months of social distancing from loved ones, many Mainers are wondering when they can get together with family, hug their grandchildren and let their children play with friends.

Those questions aren’t easy ones. So we asked an expert.

Under the governor’s safer-at-home order, gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited and people are still encouraged to keep their distance from one another and use face coverings. But while the state’s reopening plan focuses on businesses and public services, there has been less official guidance on when it will be OK to start socializing with people outside of your household, and how to reunite safely.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills

Dr. Dora Anne Mills is chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth and a former Maine CDC director who, by the way, happens to be the sister of Gov. Janet Mills. She also has become someone many Mainers have looked to for straightforward advice.

We asked her to tackle some common reader questions about social distancing.

Q: When can Mainers expect to safely visit family or friends from whom they’ve been social distancing, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles?

A: In general, the slower we expand our circle of friends and family we socialize with, the better. With up to a two-week incubation period, COVID-19 can circulate for a while and start to surge before it can be detected. We are also learning more every week about this virus, including how easily transmissible it is, especially through respiratory droplets.

From an epidemiological standpoint, an effective strategy is to draw concentric circles that are increasingly larger, about every two weeks, so long as the pandemic is not expanding in your community. For instance, if there is a nearby household of close family members (i.e., a quarantine group) you are eager to see, then start by socializing with them. Then if all is well, expand the circle to another household in two weeks. However, there are important caveats:

•  Keep members from each household (your quarantine group) at least 6 feet from those from the other household.
•  Make sure everyone is masked.
•  Minimize the number of people visiting.
•  Visit outdoors if at all possible.
•  Make sure everyone washes or sanitizes their hands before and after the visit as well as after touching items handled by others.
•  Do not include, or minimize the exposure of, those who are at high-risk for severe infection.
•  Make sure households visiting with each other are from the same community or nearby.
•  Make the visit brief, i.e., minimize the time people are together.

Q: Is it OK to get together if we stay outside? Should we wear our face coverings even if we’re trying to stay 6 feet apart?

A: The major risk factors for transmission include: gatherings of people; indoor gatherings; those in which people are close together (closer than 6 feet); those that include people who have traveled from areas of higher incidence (e.g., from out of state or from southern Maine to northern Maine).

The longer the time of the gathering and the more people gathered, the higher the risk. If the gathering involves singing, shouting or other energetic exhalations, then droplets with the virus can travel much farther than 6 feet.

Therefore, here are some strategies to reduce risks:

•  Make sure visits are held with as few people as possible.
•  Confine visits to people from a maximum of two households (quarantine groups).
•  Conduct visits outdoors.
•  Maintain at least 6 feet distance between those who are not household members.
•  Be sure everyone is masked (or has a facial covering).
•  Hold visits over as little time as possible.
•  Make the visit brief, i.e., minimize the time people are together.
•  Don’t hold visits involving people projecting their voices (which results in the virus traveling much farther than 6 feet).
•  Don’t visit with people who are traveling from out of state or a place of higher incidence of COVID-19.
•  Everyone should wash or sanitize their hands before and after the visit as well as after touching items handled by others.

Q:  When will grandparents be able to hug their grandkids? Staying 6 feet away is so hard.

A:  There is no easy answer to this. But it is important to remember that if grandparents are 65 or older or if any of those visiting are at high-risk for severe disease, it is especially important for them to stay away from others as much as possible. A lower-risk in-person visit strategy would be a distant (at least 6 feet away) visit with masks on and held outdoors.

Q: What should parents with new babies be considering as they decide when to have extended family meet the baby?

A: Tragically, there have been some infant deaths from COVID-19, including here in the United States. We are learning more every week about this novel virus and its impact on children. My personal opinion is to minimize visits with people outside of your household (quarantine group) and try to maintain them via online technologies as much as possible. Strategies to minimize risks of in-person visits are above.

Q: Are playgrounds safe? What about playing with friends?

A: If playgrounds are open and there are not others there, then they should be a relatively safe space. You can clean off the equipment, though there is not much evidence that the virus can live on outdoor equipment for long and be viable (i.e., contagious). It is more important to make sure the children wash or sanitize their hands afterward.

Q: Can I go for a run, walk or hike with people I don’t live with? What precautions I should take if I do?

A: I have two friends I walk with. We walk on a path that is about 8 feet wide, so we stay 6 feet apart, and we wear masks. Because we walk fast and talk, our respiratory droplets can easily project much more than 6 feet, so I feel it’s important we wear masks. However, it’s also challenging to wear masks while walking so fast. As a result, I am taking more walks with my children or by myself.

Q: Have you visited yet with your own family members who live outside of your household?

A: I took my kids to my ex-husband’s camp and visited with him briefly while dropping them off, but kept outdoors and masked.

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