How to safely commute, go shopping, and go on vacation as states reopen for business during the coronavirus pandemic

A coronavirus vaccine remains far off, but the stay-at-home orders in many states are starting to lift, if they haven’t already.

That means millions of Americans can step outside their door and go to reopened retail stores, restaurants, gyms, parks and other public venues across the country.

They’ll be finding a world that’s vastly different from the last time they visited a doctor’s office, travelled, grabbed a cup of coffee or sat at their office desk.

For example, under state laws, Georgia hairdressers need to take a customer’s temperature. Colorado’s rules will let employers fill their offices with only 50% of their workforce and retail stores in Florida can only fill up to a quarter of capacity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say everyone — from workplaces to schools to homes — needs to come up with plans on when they should clean (which removes germs and dirt) and when to go further and disinfect (which kills germs on surfaces).

So people can start getting back to everyday life — but should they? And how to do it now that social distancing is the watchword to slow the spread of COVID-19?

The question of “should” is a choice everyone will have to decide for themselves.

As for the “how,” MarketWatch looked at the various scenarios people may have to navigate.

Rethink your commuting routine and your work habits

Millions of Americans have been working from home since March, but at some point their employers will want them to return to the office.

Forty percent of employers told Mercer, the human resources consulting firm, that after shelter-in-place rules end, they’ll keep employees working remotely until they deem it safe to return. Roughly 20% of polled companies said they would ask workers to come back as soon as possible.

About 60% of the surveyed companies said they would alternate workers on-site; one tactic was shifts based on alphabetical order.

Returning to work means commuting, potentially on a bus or train, and spending the majority of the day in an office with break rooms, conference rooms, bathrooms and other shared spaces.


Visualize every part of your home-to-work commute routine.

People should visualize every part of that home-to-work routine, said Dr. Tista Ghosh, senior medical director of Grand Rounds, a healthcare assistance platform helping users with appointments and questions about billing and diagnoses.

That means being aware of all the rails, buttons, handles and seats you might touch along the way. A commuter can avoid them, bring gloves, or do both, she said. Don’t forget a face mask, she emphasized. If there’s discomfort wearing it, Ghosh said to think of it this way: “It’s not protecting you, it’s protecting others…it’s like you’re doing your part.”

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At the office, people should ditch their office supply-sharing habits for now, Ghosh said. She also advised people to bring their lunches and have it at their desk instead of eating in a break room. “Trying to keep the workplace safe means not gathering,” she said.

That might sound anti-social, but there are ways around it, such as a video chat with a co-worker, Ghosh said.

The CDC also has tips for cleaning a workspace. There’s a difference between cleaning and disinfecting, the CDC notes. Cleaning removes dirt and germs, while disinfection kills germs. Disinfection should be done after cleaning.

People should develop their plans on when to clean and when to disinfect, the CDC said.

For example, an area that’s “unoccupied for 7 or more days need only routine cleaning,” the CDC said. Meanwhile, a surface that is often touched by many people, like a door handle, desk, phone, light switch or faucet, needs cleaning and disinfection at least daily, the CDC noted.

Don’t expect a waiting room at your doctor’s office

The room doctors examine you in won’t look too different than the pre-coronavirus days. But everything before and after your appointment may.

Doctors across the country have started implementing social distancing measures so they can see the patients who need their care most. That all starts with eliminating the waiting room in many cases or setting a strict limit on the number of people allowed to be in the waiting room at a given time.

At Westmed Medical Group, a multispecialty medical practice based in Westchester County, N.Y., patients are being asked to wait in their cars before appointments. They then receive a text when the doctor is ready to see them, said Anthony Viceroy, CEO of Westmed.

“If there was no virus I can’t say we would have thought of doing this,” he said. “It’s something we’ll continue to use to minimize any risk to our patients or staff even once this subsides.”

Once they are called in for their appointment, patients are screened in the lobby for coronavirus symptoms and given a face mask if they do not have one. Westmed plans to see patients who have tested positive for coronavirus, but only towards the end of the day to “eliminate cross-contamination between non-coronavirus patients,” Viceroy said, and to ensure ample time to deep clean the facility.

At One Medical, a membership-based primary care practice with 85 offices in 11 U.S. cities, waiting rooms cannot be replaced with waiting in cars, because many patients travel by mass transits to One Medical locations.

The company is asking patients not to show up early to appointments to avoid overpopulating the waiting room. They’re also encouraging patients to conduct some appointments by phone using various telehealth tools.

At the same time, One Medical doesn’t want to deter patients from coming in to get vaccines, have their blood pressure measured and other routine necessary care, said One Medical’s chief medical officer, Andrew Diamond.


‘Every patient has a different internal barometer in terms of risks they’re willing to take.’


— Andrew Diamond, One Medical’s chief medical officer

“Every patient has a different internal barometer in terms of risks they’re willing to take,” he said. “Some patients are saying, ‘I really want to come in — there’s value in that.’ Other patients say, ‘I understand you’ve taken steps but I don’t want to come in.’”

To ensure social distancing is practiced in waiting rooms, many offices have specific markers that tell patients which chairs to sit on and which are regularly disinfected throughout the day, Diamond said. If too many patients enter the waiting room, Diamond added, they will be asked to wait outside.

Like Westmed, One Medical is requiring all patients to wear a mask and will provide one if a patient does not have one. One Medical is currently not advising patients to change their clothes after coming in for a visit. “They will sit down on a surface that has just been cleaned so the likelihood of [having the virus surface on their clothes] is significantly lower than whatever you did to get to the office,” said Diamond, who holds a Ph.D. in immunology.

If you need to shop, shop with purpose

As states ease stay-at-home orders, retailers have announced plans to reopen in certain areas and outlined steps they’ll take to keep shoppers safe.

Macy’s
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CEO Jeff Gennette, for example, said 68 stores in states relaxing COVID-19 restrictions would reopen Monday with reduced hours, and all 775 locations would reopen in six weeks. The department-store chain’s new public-health precautions will include plexiglass at cash registers, six-foot social distance signage, reduced-capacity fitting rooms that will be sanitized often, mask-clad employees who have completed a “wellness checklist” before work, and a 24-hour hold on putting tried-on and returned clothing back where it belongs, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Best Buy
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, which had earlier shifted to offering curbside pickup, announced this week it would reopen 200 U.S. stores for in-store consultations by appointment. The electronics chain’s new measures include providing mandatory masks and gloves for employees, enforcing social-distancing guidelines between customers and employees, sanitizing store surfaces and areas in between service appointments, and having workers perform self-health checks before their shifts using a new app.

Meanwhile, the mall real-estate investment trust Simon Property Group
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+2.26%

said it would reopen several of its U.S. malls in the first half of May. Employees, vendors and contractors must self-screen for symptoms before coming to work; workers will wear face masks; and malls will encourage and enforce social distancing through occupancy limits, traffic-flow signage, furniture reconfiguration, closure of play areas, and every other sink and urinal taped off in restrooms, the company said.

Stores might be reopening, but is it a good idea to shop?

“It’s probably safe for people to go to the store when they need to go to the store, as long as they wear a mask and keep their distance from other people,” epidemiologist Emily Landon, the medical director for infection prevention and control at University of Chicago Medicine, told MarketWatch.

But “the most important thing is that we need to take turns,” Landon said. “If we all just do it at the same time, and we all just do it for fun, then it’s not going to work out — it’s going to be kind of dangerous.”

That means a mall visit right now isn’t a chance to hang out with friends, she said, and a trip to the store isn’t retail therapy. Instead, consider shopping a chance to buy things you need other than food and medicine: Maybe your growing child needs new clothes, for example, or you need a tool for home repairs.

“Opening up does not mean social activities,” Landon said. “It means commerce.”

Shop at stores that have instituted protective measures for their workers, Landon said — after all, those measures will also help protect you. “I would always choose to patronize a place where I saw that there were not too many workers, where they had sufficient space, and where they were given face masks and had occupancy limits on the door,” she said. “If they’re not going to take care of their workers, they’re definitely not taking care of you.”

In its guidelines for shopping for groceries and other household essentials, the CDC recommends staying six feet away from others while in line and shopping; wearing a cloth face covering; shopping during off-peak hours; disinfecting surfaces like shopping carts; and using hand sanitizer after paying. When possible, the agency says, order online or opt for curbside pickup. People at higher risk for severe COVID-19 infections should see if they can shop during special store hours.

Landon called curbside pickup “a brilliant idea” that balances reopening businesses with protecting workers. If you need to go inside a store, try to complete the browsing part of your shopping online, she suggested; many large retailers allow you to see what’s in stock at a particular store. Call ahead to ask if a particular item is available. Before you get to the store, know which pair of shoes you want to try on, and in what size.

Shop with purpose and minimize your time inside the store, Landon said: “Go in, get it, get out.”

Traveling smart starts at home now

When traveling through an airport, your main prerogative in protecting yourself from catching germs is to avoid interactions with other people as much as possible.


Download your airline’s mobile app and load your ticket onto your phone.

The first step toward that goal is actually done at home: Download your airline’s mobile app and load your ticket onto your phone. That’s according to new recommendations from Tampa International Airport in Florida.

This way you can avoid the self-serve kiosk screens that have been touched by countless other people. If you bring only carry-on luggage, you can also avoid the check-in desk as well.

As you’re going through airport security, choose the shortest lines possible to avoid being around other people. If you have TSA Precheck, Clear, Global Entry or a similar clearance that enables you to cut the main line, do so. If a Transportation Security Administration employee must touch your personal items for inspection, you can ask them to change their gloves.

And remember, many people touched the bins that go through the security scanners before you — so sanitize anything that touches the bin and your hands. If possible, put items in your carry-on bag to avoid using the bins. A 2018 study from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom found that 50% of airport bins luggage trays were contaminated with a respiratory virus.

(It’s worth noting the TSA has now said travelers can bring a 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer through security because of the coronavirus.)

Once in the airport terminal, be mindful of what you touch. Wash your hands before eating or drinking, as you would at a restaurant. And follow social distancing — don’t crowd at the gate prior to boarding, and if the airport has placed markers to denote six feet of distance in lines then mind those.

When you board the plane, wipe down your seat, seatback entertainment system and tray table with a disinfecting wipe. You can also cover your seat with a blanket or special cover. While airlines are boosting cleaning procedures in the wake of COVID-19, taking those steps can provide additional protection.

More airlines, including American
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and Delta
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+3.23%
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are now requiring passengers to wear masks during flights, so be prepared to do so and bring one in your carry-on luggage.

One in four (27%) people don’t wash their hands after traveling on public transportation, including planes, according to a 2019 report from Vital Vio, a company that manufactures antimicrobial lights.

That’s in spite of the fact that studies have shown that you can encounter more bacteria on public transportation than in your own bathroom. Wash or sanitize your hands often once you’re on the plane and after — and be sure to sanitize anything you touch during your flight, like your cellphone.


When you get to your hotel room, don’t relax right away.

The precautions shouldn’t stop once you get to your hotel. When you get to your room, don’t relax right away. You’ll want to sanitize commonly-touched surfaces. A 2012 study by researchers at the University of Houston found high levels of bacterial contamination on hotel-room TV remotes and bedside lamp switches.

Break out those disinfecting wipes again, and disinfect surfaces you’re likely to touch. You can also consider putting the TV remote in a plastic bag for added protection.

Additionally, while hotels change sheets between customers, the duvet and throw pillows are cleaned less regularly. Some hotels have removed these from guest rooms amid COVID-19, but travelers may want to stick to using their own sheets and pillows out of precaution.

Hotels are likely to return to using single-use toiletries in the bathrooms, according to travel website The Points Guy, but you may want to bring your own so that no one else has touched the soap and shampoo you use. Same goes for the drinks and snacks in the mini-fridge.

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