As the vaccine rollout accelerates and infection rates drop in California, the state is beginning to reopen, with indoor dining now available in all nine San Francisco Bay Area counties and everything from movie theaters to gyms welcoming people back indoors.
People who have received the vaccine can step inside newly opened businesses with the reassurance that their chances of catching the virus are very low, especially if they follow public health guidelines and wear masks. (It’s still unknown how readily they transmit the virus to unvaccinated people, though there’s increasing evidence that it’s likely very little.)
But what about those people who are unvaccinated? Can they safely partake in indoor activities?
While the vaccine effort has picked up speed, the majority of the population still hasn’t received a single shot.
KCBS Radio reported Tuesday that about 31% of the San Francisco population 16 and over is vaccinated. In California, 21% of residents have received at least one dose, according to the Los Angeles Times .
For some advice on how unvaccinated people can navigate the quickly opening environment, we talked to some experts.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, said indoor activities — such as dining at a restaurant, seeing a movie at a theater and working out at a gym — are safe for individuals who still haven’t gotten inoculated if the establishment is following appropriate safety precautions, such as masking, distancing (whether spacing tables or exercise equipment) and using ventilation. Gandhi pointed to a study she co-authored that looked at a company that applies these precautions and found employees were safe during surges.
Dr. Bob Wachter, UCSF’s chair of the department of medicine, concurred that most indoor activities are safe for unvaccinated people when precautions are taken.
“As long as the case rates stay very low (as they are now in the Bay Area), I wouldn't have a problem going into a gym or theater — assuming universal masking and a relatively low density,” said Wachter. “In a theater, I'd want open seats between me and strangers; in the gym, I'd want to be at least 6 feet away from anyone else. The masking is critical. If I saw anyone with the mask off (or not covering the nose), I'd walk out.”
He advised, however, against unvaccinated people dining indoors — “mainly because masking is impossible,” said Wachter, referring to the fact that diners must remove face coverings to eat.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF, pointed out that restaurants offer different environments and unvaccinated people who want to dine indoors should look for those with ventilation.
“One practical tip is that I would try to request a table close to a window that’s open as that's almost like being outdoor,” Chin-Hong advised. “Like Monsieur Benjamin in Hayes Valley, they have huge door-size windows, so you feel like you're indoors with fine china, but you're pretty much outdoor because there’s a huge window.”
He added, “Not all restaurants are created equal. It's hard to just say all indoor dining is safe or unsafe.”
Another indoor activity people who haven’t gotten inoculated may consider is flying, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to discourage against leisure travel.
For unvaccinated people on planes, Chin-Hong recommended a double mask, “knotted in the back so it’s tight and tucked under your chin.”
He said the air filtration on airplanes is generally good, and advised travelers to take extra precautions when riding public transport, whether a train or taxi, to and from the airport.
“Crack open the window,” he said, noting that you should open windows on either side of the car to let air pass through. “You want to have an air current come through the air.”
Gandhi also said that flying is safe for travelers who haven’t gotten shots, when precautions are taking.
“Yes, it is safe for you to be on the plane only if the airline is adhering to the universal masking conditions required on airlines,” she wrote in an email. “Airplanes are quite ventilated and the airline you choose should distance passengers for distancing. I would choose to wear a double mask on the plane and only take the mask down when quickly eating or drinking something.”
If you can’t make a decision on whether an activity is safe, Chin-Hong said a good rule of thumb is to assess the risk by asking three questions: 1) How prevalent is the virus in your community? 2) What’s your risk of getting bad COVID? 3) And how risky is the activity?
“Say you're a 75-year-old who was out of the country and hadn't gotten vaccinated yet, you would probably feel very unsafe in an indoor setting, or maybe if you were younger and had heart disease, going into that higher-risk environment might not be worth it,” Chin-Hong said.
Wachter added a final note of precaution for unvaccinated people considering indoor activities: “I'd keep in mind that everyone is about two months (or less) away from vaccination, so it feels like a pretty inopportune time to get infected, while doing things that are entirely elective.”
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