After nearly two months of orders and advisories to stay at home, Massachusetts and other states are beginning to ease public health restrictions. But there is still a lot of uncertainty about what exactly this means for social distancing, especially as the weather warms up and long-scheduled vacations near.

WGBH News gathered questions from the public and posed them to two medical experts: Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and David Brown, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

WGBH News has chosen 10 questions from our audience that cover the do’s and don’ts of outdoor activities, what’s allowed for those itching to travel, whether and how to restart seeing others, plus a few one-of-a-kind inquiries.

1. Walking Through A COVID Cloud:

Question: When I'm walking on the sidewalks in my town, I'm never within six feet of anyone else. But, I often wonder about people walking ahead of me. Is it possible for me to get COVID from walking behind them?

Answer: “I think it's pretty safe,” said Brown, “even if the person in front of you has COVID and isn't wearing a mask.”

Both Brown and Kuritzkes said there are three key things to remember. First, being outdoors is far safer than being inside. Second, make sure you are always wearing your mask outside your home. And, third, make sure to maintain your six-foot bubble.

Brown said these days, he regularly goes for walks along the Charles River, with a mask and without much concern.

2. Strolling With A Friend:

Question: I want to go on a walk or a hike with my friends. Is that allowed?

Answer: Both experts gave this a green light.

“If both of you are masked and if you're not walking shoulder to shoulder, but staying several feet apart, I think that would be fine," said Kuritzkes.

3. Playdates, Playgrounds and Pools:

Question: Outdoor playdates — where the parents keep the kids six feet apart — at what point will that be considered safe?

Answer: Once again, Brown and Kuritzkes said this is theoretically safe now, but they were skeptical about how parents might keep children, especially little kids, a safe distance from one another.

“My kids are grown, but when they were small, I would have had a hard time keeping them six feet apart from their friends, so I'm not sure how that is going to work,” said Brown.

“Toddlers and very young children, their first impulse is going to be to run over and hug their friend,” said Kuritzkes. “But I think that appropriately-distanced outdoor interactions are a great thing.”

Also, Brown warned parents not to get their hopes up about their kids hitting playgrounds any time soon, since often the surfaces are metal and that’s one material where the virus can live for a while. But, on a brighter note, he pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website that says the virus doesn’t seem to live in or transfer through pools.

“There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, spas, or water play areas,” reads the CDC website. “Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water.”

4. Taking That Summer Vacation:

Question: I was wondering if it would be safe or relatively safe to rent an AirBnB or similar vacation rental that has been empty for some period of time — maybe a week — and disinfect it when you arrived, open windows, etc.?

Answer: Kuritzkes gives this a thumbs up. He said the virus doesn’t survive for that long on surfaces, so a few days with nobody around should be plenty.

Brown added that, just to be sure, you might want to wipe down surfaces with something — like an alcohol-based cleaning agent — that would kill any lingering germs.

While it is okay to go to an AirBnB or vacation home, Kuritzkes said exactly where this house is located matters a lot.

“If you're going from Massachusetts, where the rates are on the decline, to Georgia or Minnesota, where the rates are on the upswing, that may not be the greatest thing to do,” he said.

5. The Bathroom Pit Stop:

Question: My family wants to go camping, but the campsite is far enough away that we’ll need to stop and use public restrooms. Any advice?

Answer: Both Kurtizkes and Brown acknowledged that this is a challenge.

Kurtizkes said he would think about this in terms of two things. First, is there anyone else in the restroom when you are using it? If so, make sure they are wearing a mask. Second, are the facilities cleaned regularly? Many places are increasing how often they clean their facilities, but it is still important to be extra, extra careful to wash your hands thoroughly with soap when finished. Plus, he said, you could further reduce your risk by using a paper towel to turn off faucets and open doors.

Kuritzkes said, once again, the key factor is where exactly you are going and if there’s a significant outbreak in the area where the campsite is located or where you’ll be traveling through.

Brown also pointed out that the novel coronavirus can be found in human waste, but there is a lot that’s still unknown.

“I've read and heard some concerns with using public restrooms since flushing a toilet can aerosolize some droplets," added Brown. "But I've not seen anything published on this as of yet, specifically for COVID."

6. Visiting Relatives:

Question: I am living with the family I nanny for, and I want to know, when is it going to be safe to go visit my parents?

Answer: Brown had to ask himself a similar question. His answer was to visit, but still be cautious.

“I went to visit my elderly parents yesterday. I haven't seen them since the start of the pandemic,” he said. “They live in Western Massachusetts. I live in Boston. And I went out there, and I wore a mask and I sat six feet apart from them and we had a really nice visit.”

He said, of course, this can vary based on individuals' risk tolerance and if either party has health concerns that put them in a higher risk category if they do contract the virus.

7. Expanding One’s Inner Circle:

Question: My partner has been staying with his family in New York. He's planning to come back to our shared apartment next week. I know that he should self-quarantine for two weeks, but should I also quarantine?

Answer: Both experts said bringing someone new into your inner-circle — meaning no masks and no distancing — is a tricky thing and depends on your risk tolerance.

“If he is in quarantine, then she should not be in touch with him during that period or, if they are together, then she should be quarantined for as long as he is," said Kuritzkes.

He said that if individuals are self-quarantining for 14 days in preparation to merge social bubbles, they should make sure "they are not having any respiratory symptoms at all: no runny nose, no cough, no sore throat, no fevers, no muscle aches and pains. Then, it's very unlikely that they are infected," he said.

But, he acknowledged, a lot is unknown in terms of asymptomatic cases and how long you are infectious.

And, Brown said, even after a 14-day quarantine, the risk is not zero, since almost all of us come into contact with others, whether grocery shopping, pumping gas or using a shared entryway in an apartment building.

8. Two Recovered People:

Question: I had COVID and have recovered. My friend tested positive for the antibody. Can we socialize with one another?

Answer: On this, both experts were cautious and said there are too many unknowns to sanction a carefree social visit as safe.

"We don't know for certain how protective antibodies are, and we don't know for certain how long people shed virus," said Kuritzkes.

Brown also warned that antibody tests can be falsely reassuring. "There are a lot of antibody tests out there. Some of them are good and some of them are not good and some of them are really not good," he said.

Brown’s conclusion is that unless you are certain you got one of the good antibody tests for the specific antibody linked to this novel coronavirus, then both parties should probably be wearing a mask and keeping six-feet apart for any socializing.

9. Eating Meat:

Question: Is it safe to eat meat given all the infections at meat-packing factories?

Answer: Yes! Just be sure to cook it and wash your hands after preparing it.

"There's really no concern about foodborne transmission of the virus," said Kuritzkes.

He said the fact that it takes several days for meat to go from the processing plant to the supermarket to your kitchen means if there was any virus shed onto the meat, it would not have survived and would not be infectious.

10. Gloves and Face Shields:

Question: Should we be wearing gloves and face shields in addition to masks?

Answer: Outside of a health care facility, it’s probably not necessary. “A mask is the important thing,” said Brown.

However, he said gloves can function as a useful reminder. “Gloves are helpful in that they do act as an impediment to the incredibly hard to control habit of touching your face," he said. "Wearing gloves somehow seems to trigger the reminder, before you quite get there, that maybe you shouldn't touch your face."


As an emergency room doctor, Brown had one other piece of advice for those worried about contracting the virus: Don’t avoid the hospital if you’re worried something else is wrong. He’s seen a decrease in patients with strokes, heart attacks and things like appendicitis.

“That's quite concerning to me,” he said. “The mortality rate for an individual with COVID is actually quite low. The mortality rate for an individual with an untreated stroke or an untreated heart attack or an untreated inter-abdominal infection is not low."

So, he said, feel free to go to the AirBnB, but also take that trip to the ER if you need to.