Each week, we answer frequently asked questions about life during the coronavirus crisis. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at email@example.com with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions."
Is it safe to eat in an outdoor plastic dome?
Oh, to dine in a giant plastic bubble...
It's certainly not the most romantic culinary experience. But post-pandemic? It's kind of the new fad. It's popping up in New York and other cities, too, like San Francisco.
It's easy to understand the quirky appeal of bubbles, igloos, tents or plastic domes – whichever term you prefer. Who wouldn't want to say they dined in a giant hamster ball!
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Yet experts are worried about the safety implications of using bubbles as an outdoor dining strategy. It may actually be counterproductive.
The reasoning behind the bubble strategy is that shrouded in plastic, diners can withstand the cold air of winter while enjoying the benefits of outdoor dining in a pandemic — namely, air flow reduces the risk of transmission of COVID-19.
But a closer look reveals some pitfalls of the strategy, says Dennis Clements, director of the Duke Global Health Institute
"First of all, being outdoors [with no bubble] is a big help," Clements explains. "When you enclose yourself in a bubble, it stops airflow."
Tiffany Harris, associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center, agrees that cutting off airflow is a big concern for two reasons:
First, she explains, many people are dining with friends who aren't a part of their immediate household. While outdoors, there's wind to act as a buffer and disperse any infectious viral particles, lowering the risk of transmission. But sitting in a bubble effectively erects "artificial walls," doing the opposite — i.e. allowing viral particles to linger in the air.
That's not all. Even though restaurants say they're taking care to sanitize the bubbles after every use, Harris still has worries: "I have concerns about everything being cleaned properly and how often cleaning is happening — especially given that we don't understand everything about COVID sterilization."
And some questions remain unanswered — like, how long must one air out a bubble to get a good cleaning after a party leaves?
And, Clements explains, you're not totally isolated in a dining igloo anyways. Presumably, you would be interacting often with waiters and other restaurant staff, bringing your food and drink.
"If whoever enters the bubble is diseased, their viral particles are contained in the bubble," Clements says. "That ruins the reason for eating outdoors to begin with — dispersal of aerosols by breeze."
Our sources agree: As it stands, dining outside a bubble is probably a safer bet than eating inside a bubble. After all, what's the point of sitting outside if the bubble in effect means you're... inside?
If the concern is cold weather, Harris says eating outdoors with a nearby heat lamp is a safer alternative than bubble warmth.
Is there a safe way to trick-or treat this year?
With Halloween around the corner, parents are struggling with this question.
Experts agree that Halloween cannot look the same as it has in previous years: you at your door happily handing dropping candy into the hands of costumed kids or letting them forage in a bucket full of goodies. The risk, they say, is far too high.
"We certainly don't want people to be opening the door and saying hello to everybody," Dennis Clements, director of the Duke Global Health Institute, says. "You'd be introducing into a close space whatever people are breathing out" — and that applies to both the candy hander outer and the recipients.
His view: "There's no good way to do it."
That said, there are some lower-risk ideas that people can consider if they're feeling comfortable, say Clements as well as Harris.
One risk-reduction strategy — suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as part of its Halloween guidance and also by Clements and Harris — is pre-loading zip-locked baggies with candy and leaving them outside for trick-or-treaters to pick up. That procedure would significantly reduce the amount of contamination that might occur if a parade of kids scoops their bare hands into a huge bowl or jar of candy.
But even the Ziploc idea has weaknesses. What if you are asymptomatic or presymptomatic while preparing the bags?
It's also critical for parents and trick-or-treaters to be conscious of the groups they are traveling in (the gold standard is small groups from one family spread far apart from one another). Health experts also advise that children wear a COVID-19 mask: A regular Halloween mask does not offer as much protection as a COVID mask.
"[The biggest risk is] most likely an issue of cross-contamination from other kids," Clements says.
Harris cautions that even if your community sets certain guidelines, "guidance could change, so it's important to stay abreast of what the big health agencies are saying. Halloween is still a week away, and a lot can change in a week."
With all the risks at play, some are turning to extreme measures to keep Halloween alive — loading up giant catapults with candy to fling at trick-or-treaters from a distance, or sending candy down a chute that would go from a window to the driveway.
When he heard these ideas, Clements chuckled.
"As long as the person loading the machine doesn't have the disease, I guess it's OK," Clements says. "Otherwise you're assisting the spread by some poor guy shooting that stuff out!"
Can the virus enter your body and infect you via the ear canal?
The short answer, our experts say: Probably not.
"While there's no randomized control trials on the question, it's very, very unlikely," Harris explains.
The reason is the type of skin, she says: The skin coating the ear canal is comparable to that on arms and the body, which acts as a natural barrier to the outside world.
On the other hand, the mucosal membrane (aka – the lining that covers your eyes and nose) is much more susceptible to external particles.
"I wouldn't worry very much about the ears," Clements says.
Pranav Baskar is a freelance journalist.
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