It’s been two months since efforts to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus have disrupted the way we live.

Some of the changes have been driven by the state – including executive orders that shut down restaurants, bars, theaters and non-essential retail shops. Others have been self-imposed, including people choosing to isolate at home, taking steps to minimize their contacts with people who might be carrying the virus.

Now that some of the restrictions on businesses are being lifted, the self-imposed rules play a bigger role. While barbershops and restaurants have been given detailed guidance from the state regarding safe operation, it hasn’t been the same for individuals. Is it safe to see a friend? Visit relatives? Hug a grandchild?

Unfortunately, there are no absolute rules to follow. The state is still reporting new cases every day, and the testing regime has not been thorough enough to believe that the numbers we are seeing reflect the total number of infections. We still have no vaccine or specific treatment for COVID-19, which transfers easily wherever people gather.

In the absence of hard and fast rules, public health experts offer guidelines that make these social encounters as safe as possible. A helpful set of principles was provided in Monday’s Press Herald by Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer at MaineHealth. Mills, who is the former head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (and sister of Gov. Janet Mills), said that people who have been isolating can widen their social circle if they are careful.

What we don’t know about the virus is significant, but we have been able to observe some of the most common risks. Transmission is most likely to happen when people gather, especially indoors while closely packed together. This is especially dangerous when a member of the group is someone who has traveled from an area where the virus is prevalent.

Dora Anne Mills says that people who want to socialize can be safe, but it’s important not to rush. She said the members of one household that has been quarantining together can meet with members of another household that has been quarantining and lives in the same community (or a nearby one). After getting together, both groups should wait two weeks before introducing any others into their circle. Since the disease typically presents with 14 days of exposure, both groups can be confident that they are not circulating the virus. After two weeks, the circle can widen a little more

When they do get together, the former state CDC director offered some basics: It’s best if the meetings happen outside. Members of each household should stay at least 6 feet apart. Everyone should cover their mouth and nose with a mask or piece of cloth. These gatherings should be brief and everyone should wash or sanitize their hands before and after.

People in high-risk groups – those over the age of 65 or who have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to a severe infection – should minimize their exposure in these gatherings. That means, at least for now, most grandparents are going to have to resist the temptation to hug their grandchildren.

Following these precautions won’t guarantee that you won’t get sick, but they do offer a way to increase social contact while minimizing risk. As we wait for the development of a vaccine, that may be the best we’ve got.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.