Is It Safe to Use a Public Restroom? And 5 Other COVID-19 Questions You’ve Been Asking

UPDATED: June 16, 2020 — 4 p.m. EST

With individual counties and full states across the country opening up at different rates, you might be wondering what is actually safe outside your home? After being sheltered inside for 10 weeks or more it’s understandable that you’re hesitant to get out of the house. Director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, Dr. Mark McClellan, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show on May 19, 2020 to discuss what common activities are high or low risk and how you can take precautions. 

If places have started to open up near you, you’ve probably had some of these thoughts: Is it safe to use a public restroom? Will eating at a restaurant put me at risk? When can I get a haircut again? Dr. McClellan is here to answer these questions (and more) and to put your mind at ease with his recommendations. 

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Is It Safe to Use a Public Restroom? 

Research out of Wuhan, China investigated if airborne particles in hospitals contained COVID-19. Their findings showed no viral particles in ICUs (presumably because they’re well-ventilated), but they did find viral particles in the poorly ventilated bathrooms. 

“Different restrooms create different kinds of risks,” says Dr. McClellan. If a bathroom has good air flow and is thoroughly cleaned, the risk of airborne COVID-19 particles might be low. Dr. McClellan says restaurants that are opening might have safer public restrooms because they will improve the ventilation, deep clean on a regular basis, and limit the amount of people in the restaurant (and therefore the restroom) in a given period of time. You can always ask a restaurant or other business what precautions they’ve taken in the restrooms and the last time it was cleaned. Higher risk public restrooms would be in crowded places that have high traffic and might not be cleaned as often such as in parks or at beaches. 

Recent research now shows COVID-19 can be found in feces. Scientists, who published their findings in the journal Physics of Fluids, took a look at how flushing a toilet with infected feces might transmit the virus into the air. They found that it might not only spread onto surfaces in the stall, but also that droplets might stay in the air long enough for the next person who uses the stall to inhale the virus-ridden particles. But even though virus particles can found be in the air, it doesn't necessarily mean there are enough to infect you  ⁠— but it's good to keep in mind and take precautions as we wait for more research. The best way to lessen your risk is to close the toilet lid before flushing. And while you might want to consider avoiding public restrooms for the time-being, if you need to use one make sure to take proper precautions: wear a face covering, wash your hands thoroughly, and do not touch common surface areas (use a paper towel to open the door). 

Can I Get a Manicure or Haircut Without Worrying? 

“Nail salons, beauty parlors, and barber shops involve you and the person who is giving the service spending time in close proximity for a significant amount of time,” says Dr. McClellan. “We need to pay extra attention on both sides.” 

What does this mean? All patrons and employees should wear masks, work stations should be cleaned and disinfected after each customer, and anyone who is going into work should be screened for symptoms. “This shouldn’t just be a fever check,” advises Dr. McClellan, “[it should be a check] of the full list of symptoms every day. Even if mild, it could be an indication of COVID-19.” 

Call the place you want to visit and discuss the procedures they’re implementing to keep everyone safe. If you’re not comfortable, you don’t need to make an appointment; just because things are opening up doesn’t mean you have to participate if you’re not ready. 

Will Eating at a Restaurant Put Me at Risk? 

As you may have heard by now, when restaurants reopen, limited capacity is going to be encouraged to slow the spread. “The safer version of reopening a restaurant is to have tables spaced out, have servers bring the food out to you with masks on, [as well as] other safety measures,” says Dr. McClellan.  

Dr. McClellan also says you should expect to see single-use items replace common-touch items like menus, salt shakers, and ketchup bottles. All these safety measures ensure less contact between diners. When local restaurants in your area open up, ask what measures they’re taking for sanitation. If you’re still uncomfortable with going out, you can continue to support local businesses by ordering take-out or you can make your own restaurant-quality meals at home.  

What About Concerts & Church Services: Are They Safe? 

Parties, concerts, church services, and any other place or event that brings a lot of people close together under one roof is what experts call a “super-spreader” event. A crowded event makes it easier for the virus to spread. Dr. McClellan recommends avoiding these types of events until proper protocol is put in place.  

If you do have to be in a large group, wear a face covering, keep your distance, and avoid shouting (as that’s a prime method of airborne transmission). Remember, if you exhibit any symptoms — even mild ones — it’s best to stay home. 

Can I Go to the Doctor or Dentist? 

You shouldn’t be afraid to go to the doctor — especially if you’re experiencing health problems. Many doctor and dentist offices are beginning to open up with strict guidelines and sanitation procedures. If you need to go to the doctor or dentist, call to make an appointment and ask if there’s anything you need to know before you arrive. If you’re not up for an in-person visit, try out telemedicine instead. If you have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately for assistance. 

Are Indoor or Outdoor Activities Better Right Now? 

“This is a good year for eating outdoors and exercising outdoors,” says Dr. McClellan. “It’s just easier to keep distance in those settings and fresh air circulation is important to keep you away from airborne droplets that could spread COVID-19.” 

Many restaurants that are reopening offer outdoor dining as an option. Additionally, you should consider other outdoor activities like backyard BBQs (with limited people), running and other outdoor exercises, or even hikes in public parks that are open. 

Reopening the country is tricky, and while there are recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local governments, it’s not a perfected science. In any situation where you’re going outside and will be around people, it’s important to assess your risk in each individual situation as well as take the proper precautions when you go out and when you come back home. “For people who are at higher risk, they might want to wait longer [before venturing out], since we are still figuring all of this out,” says Dr. McClellan. If you do choose to go out, remember to wear face coverings when needed, follow the rules set forth by the places you’re visiting, and keep washing your hands. Additionally, if you are exhibiting symptoms you should do the responsible thing and stay home. Making smart choices will help you (and others) stay safe. 

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