From playdates to travel plans, how Bay Area doctors are navigating coronavirus risk in their own lives

From playdates to travel plans, how Bay Area doctors are navigating coronavirus risk in their own lives

San Francisco’s health orders governing the city’s behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic are remarkably specific — in some cases.

I now know all there is to know about safely operating a flea market, a chartered fishing boat and a curbside retail operation. I know it’s OK to explore rock pools, meditate outdoors and go sculling (even though I barely know what sculling is). I know I could get busted, however, for playing lacrosse, bocce ball or cricket. Bummer.

But what about, you know, real life? Can we safely see our best friends and beloved family members? Can our kids visit their grandparents or close pals other than via Zoom and FaceTime, which are quickly getting old? Can we do anything this summer other than find that one last show we haven’t yet seen on Netflix?

And what about that still unsettled question of whether to wear masks while jogging? (I don’t run unless being chased, but I know many of you are interested.)

To get some real-life advice for coping without getting sick or stir crazy, I asked the experts: doctors. They were remarkably straightforward, practical and reassuring. And they agreed that as businesses slowly reopen, families and friendships can slowly reopen, too.

“Grandchildren and grandparents and best friends and siblings spending time together is incredibly meaningful,” said Dr. Mark Shapiro, who specializes in hospital medicine in Santa Rosa. “It’s not just important because it’s fun. It’s important for mental and physical well-being.”

Thank you, sir. That’s what a lot of us have been waiting to hear.

(1) Can kids see their grandparents again?

Like with every scenario, the details matter. An 85-year-old grandparent undergoing chemotherapy would be at far more risk than a 65-year-old grandparent who’s healthy. And kids going to day care regularly pose more risk than kids who’ve been sheltering at home.

Doctors, though, agreed it’s OK in most cases for kids to see their grandparents if precautions are taken. Meet in a park or somebody’s yard because the risk of transmission is far less outdoors than inside. Wear masks. Stay socially distanced. Don’t go if you’re feeling sick. Wash your hands. Don’t invite friends to the same gathering.

If you’re eating, don’t share food, plates or utensils. It should be BYOE (bring your own everything).

Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, said these scenarios are all about “harm reduction.” Essentially, take measures to reduce your risk while not forcing yourself to become a hermit until there’s a vaccine.

“The loneliness has been really rough, particularly for elderly patients, and I totally sympathize with that,” he said. “Maybe combatting loneliness is far more important in a community that has a low risk like the Bay Area.”

We’re not to the stage where extended families should hang out indoors with hugs, cuddles and kisses, but a distanced park meet-up is better than nothing.

Michael Stein helps son Wyatt launch a rocket at Holly Park in San Francisco.

(2) Can kids see their friends again?

Zoom fatigue is real, especially for kids. More of my friends are saying their kids are refusing to log on to their online class meetings and don’t want to have playdates that way anymore. So can they have any kind of social life?

Yes, my new favorite doctors agreed. Again, with precautions.

Chin-Hong has two kids, ages 15 and 17, and said the younger one is “getting extremely antsy,” and he’ll soon allow him to venture out more. Safety during COVID-19 simply needs to become one more topic parents broach with their kids.

“Talk about risk reductions rather than absolutes,” he said. “You assess what their COVID-19 IQ is and educate them as much as you can in a gentle way.”

Kids should meet their friends — just one or two, not a group — outdoors. They still can’t engage in sports with shared equipment like soccer, baseball and basketball, but the doctors said hiking, going for walks or bicycling are fine. They should stay 6 feet apart from each other, and it’s best if they wear masks.

(3) Should I go buy something from a newly opened business or stay home?

This is one of the more confusing parts of the evolving health orders. Many businesses are reopening, particularly for curbside retail, and they desperately need customers. But the orders say people should continue to stay home unless they’re engaged in something essential.

Mayor London Breed posted photos on Instagram of buying new houseplants from Sloat Garden Center. I visited the Green Apple Books outpost in the Inner Sunset to collect some new reading material.

Essential? Not really. But OK, the good docs say.

Wear a mask. Wait in line 6 feet apart. Wash your hands before and after.

“I’ve felt that tension where I really want to be supporting businesses around me, but also not contributing to the problem of spreading the disease,” said Dr. Allison Bond, an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, saying it’s fine if you’re low-risk to patronize local businesses. “Order ahead of time. Pop by, pick it up and go.”

She said alternatives are ordering online or buying gift cards from small businesses you want to see stick around. She’s doing that with Casey’s Pizza, a favorite near her Mission Bay home. The doc’s pro tip? Order the Hot Pie.

Liore Milgrom-Gartner and her daughter find a spot to place their blanket at Dolores Park in San Francisco.

(4) Should I wear a mask while exercising?

The health orders say you don’t have to mask up if you can keep your distance, but going without one might draw you the stares and scolding remarks of strangers.

Bond is a jogger and doesn’t wear a mask — but does keep 15 feet away from anybody else even if it means running in the street, during off-hours or off the beaten track. She said that when joggers sweat and their masks get wet, it’s not accomplishing anything anyway, because wet masks are ineffective.

Studies have repeatedly shown that transmission is most likely in indoor, crowded settings in which people are together for a stretch of time. Think meatpacking plants, call centers, choir practices and homeless shelters.

You might get annoyed if a jogger runs by you without a mask, but you’re extremely unlikely to get COVID-19 because of it.

(5) Can I do anything fun this summer?

No doctor I talked to wants to get on a plane anytime soon unless it’s absolutely crucial. Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, a local infectious disease doctor and a biosecurity fellow with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said she usually flies once or twice a month, but hasn’t gone anywhere since March.

“I definitely have the travel bug right now, but I don’t have any plans to go anywhere,” she said, noting that not only do planes and airports carry risk, but you’d have to consider the COVID-19 rate at your destination and what you’d do if you got sick there.

Instead, the doctors are supportive of the good old-fashioned road trip as the state opens up more this summer and before a possible uptick of cases in the fall.

“I think the RV industry is going to do really well,” Shapiro said.

Jessica Briggs, an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, is on a road trip now. She drove to Los Angeles for her high school friend’s backyard wedding. There will be just six people there, all of them doctors. Sadly, the groom’s parents are watching via live stream because his mother has cancer.

She said she has no plans to fly to visit her parents in Texas. But she thinks driving, hiking and camping are all fine activities to consider this summer.

Chin-Hong said California is ripe for exploration.

“You can go to Yuba and get a haircut,” he quipped of the county north of Sacramento that defied the state to reopen early.

No thanks, doc. I’m not that desperate.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight appears Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: Twitter: @hknightsf


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