If you’ve been following the COVID-19 news, you probably know that health officials have warned about going to parties and bars. But how risky is hiking or dipnetting? How about ordering takeout? Should you send your kids to daycare?
Inspired by The Washington Post, reporters Tegan Hanlon and Nat Herz recruited a panel of six local health experts to answer those questions, and to explain how they manage COVID-19 risks in their everyday lives.
Here’s what they had to say: (Answers have been edited for clarity and condensed.)
Question: When and where do you wear a mask?
Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska chief medical officer: I wear it every time I walk into any sort of public space, building, grocery store, work, office building, anything like that. And if it’s a busier trail, I’ll have it on.
Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska state epidemiologist: Pretty much any time I can’t maintain at least a 6-foot distance from people who are outside of my social bubble. All indoor situations when I’m around other people. Also, outdoor situations when I’m going to be in close proximity to others outside of my social bubble for more than maybe a minute or so.
Dr. Bob Onders, medical director, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium: I wear it whenever I’m around other people — indoors in particular such as stores, picking up to-go food, and at work if I’m not in my office alone. If I’m outdoors and in a situation where I can have adequate separation, I do not wear a mask.
Dr. Ellen Hodges, chief of staff, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation: I wear a face mask at all times, except when I’m in my household or with my household members outside exercising or when I’m seated at my desk when there isn’t anyone in the office.
Dr. Tom Hennessy, infectious disease epidemiologist and affiliate faculty member, University of Alaska Anchorage College of Health: I wear a mask when I’m out in public and there’s a really good chance I won’t be able to maintain social distance. Sometimes I wear one even in the parking lot as I’m moving toward a grocery store, just in case I get close to somebody. I am not wearing a mask when I walk around in my neighborhood or ride my bicycle.
Dr. Elise Pletnikoff, family medicine physician, Kodiak Area Native Association: I’m wearing a mask any time I’m at work when I’m not in my private office with the door closed. I rarely am going in public spaces, but when I do, I wear a mask if it’s not open air, and when I have close contact with other people.
Q: Do you shop in grocery stores or order online? What precautions do you take?
Zink: We’ve made a decision, as a family, to not go to the grocery store. We order online — the whole family chips in and puts their own order in on the app.
McLaughlin: I definitely shop in grocery stores. I just wear a mask before I go in. When I’m inside, I’ll socially distance and I always wash my hands after I leave.
Onders: I’ll order when I can, but sometimes I have to go into the store to get things. I try not to go when it’s a busy period. I wear a mask and wash my hands frequently. And I usually pack hand sanitizer with me.
Hodges: I have a household of three people, so we really try to have only one of us go into the store and we try to limit our shopping to once a week. I always wear a mask and make sure that we try to go at odd times when there aren’t a lot of people.
Hennessy: I’ve been buying groceries in stores. I wear a mask, I try to go at off hours so it’s not as busy. I bring hand sanitizer, I bring my own bags and bag my own groceries and I try to follow the directional signs, if they have lane markers. I’m also avoiding people who are in stores and not wearing a mask. That’s less common now, but prior to the mask mandate, I would steer around them and try to stay away from them. If they passed by me, I would sometimes hold my breath and wait for quite a few seconds until I would go into the air space that they had just occupied.
Pletnikoff: I order online and get the groceries delivered to my car in the parking lot. My husband goes physically grocery shopping with a mask on.
Q: Are you eating inside restaurants or going to bars? Why or why not?
Zink: I’m not. Indoor spaces are definitely higher risk for transmission. I love a good restaurant and a great bar, but that is not worth the risk for me.
McLaughlin: I haven’t been inside a restaurant or a bar since all this started. I’m not much of a bar-goer anyway and don’t go to restaurants a whole bunch.
Onders: I am not. With the spacing right now and the indoor environment, and with the increased cases in Alaska, I think that it is a risk to dine indoors right now.
Hodges: I do not dine in at restaurants, mostly because it’s indoors with lots of people around who may or may not be wearing masks, and I don’t feel like that’s particularly safe at this point in time.
Hennessy: I’m not. I don’t feel comfortable going into restaurants. I certainly would not feel comfortable going into a bar, knowing the nature of those loud places where people are not observing social distancing. I’ve done takeout food, and have gone in to pay for my food.
Pletnikoff: I’m not dining inside at all at restaurants right now. Mostly because I don’t want to be in an enclosed space unmasked. And, I have a 2-year-old so I’m not really spending any time in bars. I’m also 18 weeks pregnant, so I’m double not spending time in bars.
Q: Are you eating outside at restaurants?
Zink: It depends a lot on how it’s set up. We’ll eat outside, particularly if they’ll deliver to you. In Palmer, there’s a great little shop, 203 Kombucha, that from the beginning, they’ve all worn masks, and there’s a bunch of picnic tables outside and all spread out, and they’ll deliver to your table so you don’t have to go inside. When our family needs to get out and do something different, we’ll bike into town and order from them.
McLaughlin: I would definitely feel comfortable eating outside, especially if there was good distancing between tables. Inside, if it’s a larger venue that has good distancing between tables, if the waiters and waitresses were wearing masks and people were following the strategies to decrease the risk of COVID transmission, I would consider it, though I probably wouldn’t spend a ton of time there. My preference would be to do take-out or to eat outside.
Onders: I do. With appropriate spacing, and if I can observe that the restaurant is doing safe practices — staff adherence to masking guidelines and minimizing potential contacts or interactions between people within the restaurant.
Hodges: There’s no options for outdoor dining in Bethel. Well, of course, except for my house.
Hennessy: I’ve considered it but I haven’t actually done it. I might be willing to, especially if the tables were spaced appropriately and the ventilation was good. If it was semi-closed, like in a tent, and didn’t look like good ventilation and they were packing people in, I certainly wouldn’t go in that.
Pletnikoff: If the servers were masked and the tables were spaced with at least six feet between diners with clear, open walking paths, that would be reasonable. But I personally am not doing that.
Q: Are you going to get your hair cut?
Zink: I have not gotten my hair cut since the pandemic. My daughter has gotten to be quite the little hair master, and so she has cut my husband’s and my other daughter’s hair. I’m going to empower her learning skills and, if I decide to get another haircut, have her do it.
McLaughlin: My partner, Kim, actually cuts my hair at home, so I’m fortunate in that way. That said, I would go to a barber as long as both of us were wearing masks.
Onders: I cut my own hair, so even pre-COVID I haven’t needed to go to a barber in many years.
Hodges: I have not gotten my hair cut since the start of the pandemic. I might do that if I could go at a time when there weren’t other people in the area, and if the person who was cutting my hair wore a mask and I wore a mask.
Hennessy: I haven’t. I’m growing a shaggy mane.
Pletnikoff: I am not.
Q: Do you disinfect your mail or packages or takeout containers?
Zink: We don’t disinfect them, but we’ll let them sit for a day or two. And after we’ve handled them or touch them, then we wash our hands before we eat or anything else like that.
McLaughlin: I don’t.
Onders: I wait a period of time before opening mail and other packages. For take-out, I generally put the food in my own bowl or on a plate and use my own utensils.
Hodges: I don’t. Our mail comes to a P.O. Box, it doesn’t come to our house. So our mail already sits at the post office for some time before it’s collected by us. I haven’t felt compelled to decontaminate takeout or groceries or mail.
Hennessy: No. I do wash my hands after handling the mail, and typically what I’ve been doing is bringing it in the house, and setting it on the counter and not dealing with it for a day or so.
Pletnikoff: Nope, I don’t disinfect anything like that. I wash my hands after touching things that have been in public spaces before I eat.
Q: Are you allowing people outside your immediate family to come inside your home, like friends, cleaners or service people for repairs?
Zink: We haven’t needed any repair people in the house since the pandemic started. We do our own cleaning, haven’t had friends in the house — our house is kind of our safe place. It provides less stress for all of us not to have to worry about that, and have made the decision not to have anyone else in our house.
McLaughlin: Very rarely. We’ve only had a few of our closest friends that have come inside of our house since this all started. But we do socialize — my bubble is about 10 people, and they’re people that I know well. They’re doing a good job of trying to minimize their risk of getting COVID. And they would be very forthcoming with me if they had any signs or symptoms.
Hodges: At the beginning of the pandemic we were pretty strict and we only had household members in our house. As restrictions have started to ease, we have a very small group of friends that we allow over. These are people, generally, that I know have practices consistent with my own, which is to be very cautious, and they haven’t traveled recently. And if possible, we stay outdoors.
Hennessy: I have had one service worker come in the house — it was pretty unavoidable. But we’re not having friends over. Neighbors, I’ve socialized with, but we do it outside on the deck.
Pletnikoff: We have a cleaning lady that comes every other week. She comes in with a mask and gloves and wears them the whole time. And my parents sometimes come and stay in the yard, but they don’t come in the house.
Q: Are you seeing friends right now? Do you go into their homes or do you see them in other ways?
Zink: I really try to avoid all indoor spaces in as many ways as possible. So, I would not go into a friend’s house. I will see friends on a run, or we’ll go for a walk around the neighborhood and we’ll just walk on opposite sides of the street, because that keeps us six feet away.
McLaughlin: I try to maintain a three-foot distance from people within my social bubble. And then everybody outside of my social bubble, I’m maintaining at least a six-foot distance. And I avoid personal contact with everyone. Most of my interactions with people in my social bubble involve going for a hike or bike ride with maybe a friend or two.
Onders: We try to see friends in an outdoor setting with spacing —either on a patio with spaced-out chairs or by a fire pit in an open space where we can spread out and visit. Socializing is important, and I think it can be done safely, particularly in the summer in Alaska. But having those distanced environments outdoors is a good thing. I also keep the number of people I see relatively small. I would like to easily be able to tell — if I ever get called — who I’d been in contact with for the last 14 days.
Hodges: I have not been into anyone else’s home, except briefly, since the start of the pandemic. And I don’t spend much time with anyone except that core group of close friends. Since I work in health care, they are mostly either health care workers or close friends of my partner. I see them either at my house or outside, camping on the river or just outdoors at my own home.
Hennessy: I haven’t been visiting with friends. I’ve been meeting with neighbors streetside as I’m out walking around.
Pletnikoff: I’m rarely seeing friends now. I have one friend who’s been on maternity leave for three months, so she’s had essentially zero social contacts except for her newborn. I walk with her about twice a week outside, but we don’t go into each other’s homes.
Q: Are you going to the gym?
Zink: I am not going to the gym. We live in the most amazing playground in the world, so we’ve opted for going outside and doing weights and yoga here at home.
McLaughlin: No. I only go to the Alaska Rock Gym in the winter. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll go back after the summer.
Onders: No. It’s indoors, and I think there’s an increased potential for aerosolization or droplet transmission of COVID with heavy breathing.
Hodges: No. We do have a gym here in town, but I have chosen not to go there and I do my exercising outdoors.
Hennessy: No. We had a gym membership, but I don’t think I’d be comfortable doing that at this point. Breathing hard in spaces where I don’t really know much about the ventilation just seems like an unnecessary risk at this point.
Pletnikoff: Not at all. I usually exercise outside anyway.
Q: Are you hiking, biking or running outside with friends? If so, what precautions are you taking?
Zink: I try to do it with people who have a similar risk value. If I’m on a busier trailhead, I’ll have a mask as an option in case I’m behind someone. And I make sure that we’re giving people plenty of space outside, to minimize the risk of transmission.
McLaughlin: I usually go alone or with one or two or maybe a few friends who are within my social bubble. I try to stick to areas with fewer people, and if I see somebody I know, I stay at least six feet away when I’m chatting with them, and if it’s going to be more than a, ‘Hello, how’re you doing?’ I’ve got a mask.
Onders: Generally, not with friends. I go with my partner or family members. I wouldn’t be opposed to doing those activities with friends, but work has been very busy so I’m prioritizing who I spend time with.
Hodges: I do run outside and I only go with members of my own household, and we go very early in the morning and almost never come across people. We do walk our dogs and do quite a bit of hiking around, and we do that with more of that small group of core friends. Because those are the people who are often in my home as well, we don’t take any precautions. If we come across others, I try to stay more than six feet away. I carry a mask with me, but I only put the mask on if I have to be less than six feet from others, talking about a problem or something like that.
Hennessy: I haven’t. My wife has been doing some hikes with friends, and they’re maintaining distance and traveling separately to trailheads, driving separate vehicles.
Pletnikoff: I’m biking with my husband and daughter. I am walking with one friend who’s carefully social distancing, and then hiking with only my family. I breathe pretty heavily when I’m exercising and my friends usually do too — it’s sort of a higher-risk activity. The steeper the hike, the higher risk I think it is for heavily breathing and getting into each other’s air space. Because I work in health care, and I take care of vulnerable patients, it’s really important to me not to bring COVID into my practice.
Q: Are you driving in cars with people outside of your immediate family?
Zink: Nope. They’ve seen a lot of transmission from prolonged driving in cars. It’s made some of these traverses across Alaska harder, for runs and things like that — it’s been a lot more driving, a lot more of my husband and I trying to figure out coordination.
McLaughlin: I have driven in a car a couple of times with people who are in my social bubble. One example was a car shuttle up in Bear Valley — we were doing a hike, and it was less than five minutes, but we wore masks, we tried to social distance inside of the car and we kept the windows down.
Onders: Generally, no. There’s probably a few exceptions and everyone has worn a mask.
Hodges: Only co-workers, like if we have to go up to the airport where we do testing, and generally speaking, we wear a mask when we’re in the vehicle.
Hennessy: No. The car, closed space is set up for breathing the same air as another person whose COVID status I don’t really know anything about.
Q: Would you go on a fishing charter or go dipnetting this summer?
Zink: I probably won’t, because I will be at my computer all summer. My family is debating about dipnetting — if they do go, they are thinking about a place with less people. We’ve even been talking about what tides would have less people, like dipnetting at night versus day.
McLaughlin: I’m not a real big charter fisherman, but I would go dipnetting this year, for sure. I’d definitely go to the Copper River and I’d consider going to the Kenai River as well — you just want to make sure you’ve got that six-foot distance.
Onders: I think there are safe ways to do that. Those are primarily outdoor activities and you can do them with a closer bubble of people who may be taking the same precautions you are taking.
Hodges: We gillnet fish here, and you can dipnet fish here, and, generally speaking, I only go with members of my own household.
Hennessy: I just made a decision not to do both of those things. Most years, I do both. But dipnetting on the Kenai River is a crowded experience, and when the fish are running, people want to get their nets in the water. I don’t really want to be put in a situation where I have to challenge somebody about being out of my space, or take the time to go down there and find out that people are not social distancing and turn around and come home. I am not going to go on charters for the same reason.
Pletnikoff: That’s not how my family gets fish and so I’ve never done either of those things. My dad brings fish to us regularly and then my husband and I have a little boat that we will setnet or troll.
Q: When do you think you’ll take your next out-of-state vacation? Or leave the state to visit family?
Zink: I don’t know. It could be a while. I could see potentially traveling out of state for a family emergency or something like that. Definitely not for vacation. With this pandemic, we’ve canceled all our trips and our plans and we’re just going to wait and see.
McLaughlin: Boy, not any time soon. I can barely get away from my computer for more than a few hours each day right now, even on the weekends. I really don’t know.
Onders: I think it’s too far in the future to even know. My partner and I talk about that quite frequently because we had traveled a lot prior to COVID. Right now, I wouldn’t travel to the Lower 48, and then the situation in Alaska is escalating too. And with my work, I really have to be stringent to make sure that I’m not putting anyone else at risk by increasing my number of contacts.
Hodges: Possibly in August (to visit family). But I’m very hesitant to travel out of state — there’s just a lot of spread right now, especially where some of my family is. If I did, I certainly would quarantine when I arrived back in Bethel. The only reason I would leave the state would be to visit family.
Hennessy: We’ve canceled a couple trips already. We have something set up for Christmastime, but I suspect that will get canceled, too, unless the situation changes dramatically — we get a vaccine, or the outbreak goes way down. Seems like air travel now is a bad bet.
Pletnikoff: Probably in 2021.
Q: How are you traveling within Alaska right now?
Zink: Just by car, because we’re in our own space and bubble. I did fly for work. Prior to that, I got tested and then flew on a commercial airline to Nome and we flew around to numerous communities on a private plane. And then I quarantined from my family for 14 days after that.
McLaughlin: I’m pretty much staying local right now.
Onders: My partner is from Nome, so we did travel out to Nome for a couple weeks and went through the process of testing and quarantining at a beach camp out of town prior to any contact. Other than that, we’ve only been going on nearby trips on the road system.
Hodges: I am not traveling out of the region. I’ve traveled a few times for work in the region, and we require our employees to be tested before travel to another village — I’ve been to a village on a medevac to pick up a patient. And then, the only boating I’m doing is just on our river, in close proximity, to go camping.
Hennessy: We’ve taken a few trips within the state to go camping and feel comfortable doing that, driving our own vehicle. Campgrounds are generally widely spaced and outdoors and it’s easy to maintain distance from people, so that has felt comfortable. I haven’t done any flying in-state or taken any other transport.
Pletnikoff: I haven’t flown at all since February, so I haven’t left Kodiak. I would be comfortable traveling on an airplane to Anchorage with a mask on and appropriate safety measures, but I haven’t. In Kodiak, we drive out the road and go on our personal boat and I’m comfortable with both of those things, but we have minimal interactions with other people.
Q: Are you willing to go to an outdoor barbecue? If so, how many people (outside of your household) would you feel comfortable being with?
Zink: It depends on who’s going to be there and what that looks like. I don’t think there’s a set number, but we have friends who also have a very similar risk tolerance for this disease and, as a result, are keeping their bubbles very small, and so we’ve talked about having an outdoor barbecue with them. I’d make sure that we’re not sharing any utensils or serving off the same platter.
McLaughlin: Yes, but it’s best to keep it small and stick with your social bubble.
Onders: Generally, I would feel comfortable with groups of 10 or smaller, but it depends on spacing. Because I think potentially in larger spaces you could have more people and I would feel comfortable if the flow of people was controlled in some manner. And, I’d wash my hands before eating.
Hodges: I would feel most comfortable if it were the people in my core group of friends, and certainly if it were less than 10 people. I really am trying to avoid large groups of people. I think limiting the amount of shared dishes and making sure the utensils aren’t shared and trying to limit the amount of cross-contamination that might occur is really important. But, most importantly, I would not go to a barbecue that had people whose practices I didn’t know and trust.
Hennessy: I would be comfortable going to a barbecue if it was entirely outdoors and the people hosting it were really clear that they were going to require masks and ask people to social distance and had hand-washing capabilities or sanitizing available to people. If that was clear up front and everybody agreed to that, then I might go and visit with people. I would feel comfortable with something less than 10.
Pletnikoff: I’m not eating with anybody outside of my household right now. But, I do think it would be reasonable — with social distancing with non-shared food — for people to eat in an outdoor space together.
Q: If you had young children, would you allow them to go to summer camp or daycare?
Zink: That development is so important for kids that I think it really would depend on the children themselves. I’d look at a small, closed, cohorted group, where there aren’t kids interacting between multiple age groups, that primarily did a lot of their activities outside.
McLaughlin: I don’t have children, but I’d recommend considering a few factors: What’s the incidence of COVID in your particular community? How well does your family maintain a social bubble — is it leaky or tight? And, how frequently is your child going to come into contact with family members or friends who are at increased risk for more serious outcomes if they get COVID?
Onders: It would depend on the scenario, and it would require investigating the specifics with the camps. I think some of the outdoor camps, with an appropriate, structured environment, can be beneficial and healthy for kids and not present a significant, increased risk. Close-quarters and indoors, again, increases the concern. It’s a risk-benefit analysis: You have to also think about, who are your other family members, and do they have medical conditions that put them at an increased risk if they end up getting COVID?
Hodges: I’m grateful I don’t have to make that decision because I think that decision is really difficult for families right now. I think I would try very hard not to.
Hennessy: I would allow my kids to go to summer camp or daycare if I was comfortable that the camp was taking appropriate measures to prevent the kids from mixing closely. Are they asking them to wear masks? Are they having them social distance, and do they have a mechanism to make sure that that happens? Do they emphasize hand washing and sanitizing? Those would be prerequisites for me.
Pletnikoff: My daughter is going to daycare. We kept her home for eight weeks — it was really hard for my husband and I to both be working full-time with a 2-year-old at home. That was at a time before we knew much about coronavirus and children. Now, she’s been back at daycare and we know that coronavirus is not very dangerous for children and that children, for some reason, don’t spread it as much as adults do. Our provider has a small cohort of children that she keeps together and she’s very safe and so we’re comfortable with her in that setting. But I would not be comfortable with her being in a changing, large group of children.
Q: If you had young kids, would you send them back to school in the fall?
Zink: That is the debate we are having in our family right now. My kids are older and they’ve done really well with online learning, so it feels like a different situation for us. School is super important for kids — it’s how they learn, it’s so much interaction. But I think we need to take COVID really seriously. Part of it is going to depend on what the superintendent’s plans look like, and then part of it depends on my kids and their response to it. At this point, our kids are probably not going to brick and mortar schools in the fall, based on what we’re seeing in the numbers, but we’ll have to keep watching that.
McLaughlin: I would be planning on it. We’re going to try to do whatever we can to get kids back to school. It’s just so important on so many fronts to have kids be physically present.
Onders: The end of July is going to be telling — how these weekends went and the caseloads — so I think it’s hard to say right now. If not Alaska on the road system, I sure hope rural Alaska is able to allow their children to go back to school because they’ve taken extra precautions to keep COVID out or quickly eradicate it. But I think here, in Anchorage, we have to wait and see how the next few weeks go.
Hodges: We’re working with the schools to try to come up with a safe plan, so I think so, and I trust that the schools are going to do the very best they can to limit infection rates and exposure for people.
Hennessy: A lot remains to be seen about what the school environment is going to be in the fall. Will schools be able to create social distancing, or will they be able to create small pods of kids who interact, maybe, a little more closely? If the school is just a free-for-all and they’re not taking precautions, I’d be really uncomfortable with that. I’d want to see what the plan is for protecting students and to avoid mingling.
Pletnikoff: I would. I think school is very important for children.
Q: Are you making routine trips to the doctor or dentist?
Zink: We’re not. We’re trying to be really good about flossing and brushing a ton. There will be a time where I will say, “Okay, we have to go back in to the dentist.”
McLaughlin: I haven’t yet, but I should probably get my teeth cleaned soon.
Onders: I feel fortunate that my health is good and I don’t have a need for that. So, it’s not based on any choice — I just don’t have a need for that.
Hodges: I have not gone to the dentist. I did have a routine visit with a provider for my own health. I wore a mask and my provider wore a mask and I went first thing in the morning before there were any other patients around.
Hennessy: Not routine, no. If it was necessary, sure. My wife got an allergy shot, and they’re taking precautions at the physicians’ office, so I think that’s a relatively safe environment to go into.
Pletnikoff: No. I work at the doctor’s office. I have done phone visits for my pregnancy. Mostly because on my days off, I don’t want to come in and it’s more about convenience.
Q: Are you working in your office right now? If so, what precautions do you take?
Zink: I haven’t been back to my office in a long time. I’ve been there maybe twice since the pandemic. I don’t have any plans to go back in.
McLaughlin: I work about two to three days a week in the office, and just try to maintain minimal interactions, social distancing, wearing masks whenever I’m around others, frequent handwashing. We do a lot of videoconferences and a lot of phone call teleconferences.
Onders: If I’m in the office by myself, I’ll close the office door. And if I interact with anyone or walk through any common areas, I wear a mask. I still use frequent hand washing and don’t touch my face, nose or mouth with my hands. The conference rooms are closed, and any area where there’s group seating, it’s either eliminated or spread out.
Hodges: I work in my office — there’s not really a way for me to work very effectively from home. So, I share a large group office with three people and our desks are more than six feet apart. I don’t wear a mask when I’m sitting at my desk and, generally, people stay six feet away. When we have meetings, we all wear masks.
Hennessy: I’m working from home. In the few times I needed to go in, one of the facilities I went into had temperature checks, had me attest that I didn’t have symptoms and I had to wear a mask. I thought those were good measures.
Pletnikoff: I am. I mask 100% of the time when I’m in the building, except when I’m in my private office with the door shut and no one else is in there. I wash my hands before and after contact with any patients. And I wash my hands before and after I eat. And, all of our patients are asked to put masks on and wear them for the duration of their visit. We’re doing a lot more phone visits and telemedicine than we usually do, too.