It's an uneasy time in Boston and much of the world as we watch long-standing, beloved events get canceled, students sent home from school for weeks, and family members hunker down in quarantine.
To help ease some concerns, we launched a call across our social platforms to hear from our readers about what persisting questions you have about the coronavirus pandemic. It turns out, many of us are concerned about our neighbors and the most vulnerable members of our community and are seeking ways to help out while keeping others safe.
We consulted some experts to answer some of your most-asked questions:
Can I go to the grocery store to get things for my elderly neighbor?
The elderly are at higher risk of acquiring coronavirus and for having complications if they do become sick. Clearly, many of you know that and want to help your neighbors. That's a good impulse, and you should go with it — as long as you keep yourself safe, said Dr. Brian Chow, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center.
He urged anyone wanting to help out to take all of the common sense precautions we've been hearing about. Leave your kids at home, if you can, wash your hands before going to the grocery store, wipe down the cart when you hit the store, and then immediately wash your hands when you get home — before you drop off the groceries.
And what about passing along the virus on the surface of the food or package?
"We know that coronavirus can persist on some surfaces for at least a few hours afterwards," Chow said. "We're not really sure what the outside number for that is. But eventually it will dry out and die and not become contagious."
Can I watch my neighbor’s kids so she can go to work?
For many of us, there simply isn't any way around the fact that we have to work and care for our kids while they're home from school. It's especially an issue for medical personnel with children, who have to contend with how to keep both themselves and their families safe while working.
Chow acknowledged the challenges, and said that children are more likely than adults to not show symptoms of the virus even if they are carrying it — making it easier to unknowingly spread. Therefore, he said, it's a good idea to limit the number of kids that are together at a time.
"We want to keep the same groups of people together over time so you can watch the same group of kids day after day," Chow said, "and preferably not switch from one group of kids to another to help prevent transmission of any viruses."
Of course, parents have to figure out a plan in light of state-wide canceled schools. We just don't want a babysitting setup to be the size of a daycare center.
Is it safe to order things online or mail packages to elderly relatives?
These questions get back to the issue of coronavirus living on inanimate objects. A lot is still unknown about the virus, but one thing doctors are pretty certain of is that it can't live in open air for very long.
"The main way that this is going to be spread is through contact with people who are sick," Chow said. "Although the virus can survive on inanimate objects for a period of time, the major risk is going to be in the social interactions with people who are sick."
Can I still donate blood?
Yes. Full stop. Don't stop giving blood. While a lot of people have been canceling their appointments to donate, doctors say there's no reason you should. But they do say an appointment is key, because that minimizes the time you're at the hospital or blood donation center.
"Most of the blood donation centers will be following the standard infection prevention guidelines, and maintaining proper separation between people so that we don't transmit. But in theory, everyone who is donating blood is going to be healthy at the time that they donate," Chow said.
Would buying gift certificates for local restaurants help the economy?
It's a very tough time to be a restaurateur, and especially someone who runs a small place.
Andrew Li and his partner Corey Fletcher opened Flora's Wine Bar in West Newton in late February — just about two weeks before Gov. Charlie Baker declared that all bars and restaurants in the state are closed to sit-down patrons.
Li said most importantly, people need to be kept safe. And when it's deemed safe to resume usual activities again — whenever that may be — patrons can paint the town and boost the economy. But for right now?
"Gift cards are very much something that will help businesses in the short term," Li said. "They're essentially sales for the restaurant that are deferred. So, any amount of money that can come in to help restaurants, number one, pay their staffs, take care of their employees in whatever manner they can, keep the lights on, pay the utilities ... is greatly appreciated."
The Massachusetts Restaurant Association told State House News Service that the last few days "have been some of the most stressful and anxiety-ridden days our industry has faced in recent memory and possibly ever."
The association has created an online information and resource guide for restaurants and is working with operators as they navigate the uncertainty.
Many restaurant owners are hoping to make up at least some of their business with takeout orders. But Li said his restaurant is too small to run a takeout business. He estimated that pizza-type restaurants, which are set up already for takeout, will be able to weather this best.
"It varies from business to business, but if they didn't have that infrastructure in place already, it would be hard for any restaurant to begin a new operation," Li said. "I don't see it as being a viable business model."
Li said he expects the most that any high-end restaurant can hope to do is break even with takeout service.
"It's just a band-aid," he said.
Can I take in a stranded college student?
You're a good person and you want to help a struggling college student — maybe someone from overseas who's far from home. So it seems only natural that you'd offer up an extra room. People do it all the time for exchange students or young people in the U.S. as nannies. But the difference is that in those arrangements, students and their host families are vetted by an agency that takes responsibility for the safety of both guest and host.
So, you should resist the urge.
"I am suggesting, frankly, that people write checks," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Hope Center for College Community and Justice at Temple University. "The most important thing that folks can do right now for these students, frankly, is to call your local college and find out how you can donate to their emergency aid fund. Most colleges and universities have some sort of crisis fund and they're trying very hard to make grants to the students. It's probably worth noting that you should call the institutions with the least wealth first."
Goldrick-Rab said that peoplare are probably hearing lots of stories about kids having to hightail it out of local colleges like Harvard or Boston University before the dorms slam shut. But the students most affected by schools closing down, she said, are the ones who go to places like Bunker Hill Community College.
"The vast majority of its students, about two in three, were already dealing with food and/or housing insecurity before the current crisis struck. Bunker Hill could use the emergency aid support right now," Goldrick-Rab said.
But we still haven't said why you shouldn't offer up an empty room in your house. The answer, Goldrick-Rab said, is rather macabre: trafficking of college students.
"College students in vulnerable financial circumstances have been taken advantage of," she said. "There was a story that just came out at Sarah Lawrence College not very long ago. Colleges and universities are very aware they need to be careful with people who volunteer to 'help students.' And as sad as that is, we have to understand that that's a reality right now."
Goldrick-Rab said colleges should not shoulder the burden of making sure that would-be hosts have the best intentions. She said colleges and universities can't be like the agencies who place au pairs because they don't have the staff or the resources to vet potential hosts.