When Will Certain Things Be Safe?

An important discussion with The Action Cookbook Newsletter's resident public health expert.

We’re at a strange point right now.

Each day, millions of people are receiving vaccines that promise to protect them from COVID-19, and case numbers have dropped dramatically from the terrible peaks of early January. There is finally an end in sight for the pandemic, but it’s necessarily going to be a clear end. People are still getting sick—despite the precipitous and welcome drop, daily cases remain almost twice as high as they were during the first peak last spring. Herd immunity may not be reached until summer or even fall, and that’s largely dependent on the ability of public officials to produce and distribute vaccines, convince reluctant populations to take them, and those vaccines’ ability to hold up in the face of new variants.

People are anxious to return to normal life, especially once they’ve received one of the vaccines themselves. But it’s hard to cut through all the noise, all the conflicting and at-times-misleading news reports, and know the answer to that burning question:

What is safe for me to do right now?

To help answer this question, we’ve brought in our resident health expert for a chat. Dr. Linus Sockpuppet is the chief epidemiologist at the Kentuckiana Institute of Technology, which is, for tax purposes, located in my backyard.

Dr. Sockpuppet, thank you for joining us today.

It’s my pleasure.

Our readers are very interested to hear your take, as an epidemiologist, on what activities you consider to be safe as we ease out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yes, of course. I think it’s important that people understand that this isn’t going to be like flipping a light switch. It’s going to be a gradual easing of precautions and careful reintroduction of behaviors on a case-by-case basis.

Let’s pose a few scenarios. Would you feel comfortable gathering, unmasked, with fully-vaccinated family members and close friends?

Generally speaking, if all parties present are vaccinated, the risk should be low, but it’s important to consider the wider circles. Does the vaccinated person you’re meeting with live with someone who isn’t yet vaccinated? Although we’re hopeful, we don’t have clear data yet to prove that vaccinated people cannot spread the virus, so secondary and tertiary risks should be considered as part of a larger risk assessment.

What about dining out in a restaurant?

We’ve known for a while that indoor dining is especially risky—not just for you, but also for the restaurant staff. It’s understandable to want to support local restaurants, but make sure they’re enforcing rules and taking precautions seriously, and as the weather warms up, consider outdoor dining as a safer alternative.

How about art museums?

That could probably be done safely, but again, it all depends on the precautions being taken. Careful spacing, timed entries—those sort of things can make it safe. It’s been a difficult time for arts organizations, though, so I think it’s worthwhile.

What about attending a gala at an art museum?

Well… no, that sounds less safe.

Even if it’s the biggest gala of the year, the only night when the Eternal Heart of The Euphrates Diamond will be on display, but also a night when security will likely be distracted by the star-studded guest list and not carefully monitoring service staff?

… what?

I would be wearing a mask in this scenario.

I don’t think that… I’m sorry, I’m not sure I fully understand this q—

Nevermind. Moving on. Movie theaters?

With lowered capacity, careful masking requirements, and enhanced airflow, it can be done with a reasonable degree of confidence.

Gyms?

Individual exercise can probably be done safely, but I would avoid in-person fitness classes unless they’re done outside or in a very well-ventilated way.

A Las Vegas casino on the night of the biggest fight of the year?

These questions are a bit strange.

This casino, they’re very good about taking precautions. I’ve studied their HVAC system quite closely, as a matter of fact. The airflow is terrific. Nice, large ducts.

Mr. Gold monitors who enters his casino very carefully, I might add. Very carefully.

Okay, I just have to ask something.

Yes?

Are you planning some sort of heist?

[laughing defensively] What? No. Of course not. That’s ridiculous.

I’m sorry. My mistake. The questions just seem really specific, and—

How about religious services?

As with so many of these things, it all depends on the specific precautions being taken, the quality of the HVAC, the—

This is a historic church in Lower Manhattan, and I would be attending by myself, or perhaps with only a small handful of trusted associates. After hours, of course.

I think that would probably be safe, at least from an epidemiological perspective. It sounds like you might have other risk factors that are outside of my area of expertise.

Yes, speaking of expertise. Let’s say you’re running a small business of sorts. Would it be safe to gather with your colleagues in close quarters?

You’ll want to make sure that everyone you’re associating with closely is vaccinated as well, and you’ll want to keep these gatherings small, masked and distanced.

Right. I mean, it’s not a large crew, uh, company. We’re only talking eleven or twelve people. Maybe thirteen. We’ll see how successful we are.

That’s rather large for the current moment. Do you think you could pare it down?

Well, they each have very particular skills. It’d be hard to leave anyone out.

Perhaps you consider having several bubbles within your organization to limit exposures?

Two teams. [snaps fingers] That’s brilliant. [pounds desk] That’s exactly it!

Are… are we done here, then?

[distractedly] Yes, yes, of course, I’ll let you get back to the university. Back to your quiet, unassuming life, the kind of life no one would even think pry into. Your spotless Interpol record and frequent international travel, the kind of life that could serve as the perfect cover story…

I, uh…

Listen, I do actually have one more COVID question.

Yes, of course.

How comfortable would you feel being stuffed inside a false back of an heirloom wardrobe with three other people for 12-24 hours as it’s delivered inside of Buckingham Palace, purportedly a gift from a foreign head of state, the kind of thing that will take days to be recognized by palace security as a ruse, by which time you’d be on a plane with no tail number headed for a safe house in Istanbul?

[thoughtfully] This plane… will they keep the middle seats open?

[nods, dials phone] The professor’s in. Plan Omega is a go.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)

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