OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images

My Governor Just Lifted Stay-At-Home Guidelines. Now What?

A young person's guide to protecting yourself and others as states and businesses open back up

Though stay-at-home orders meant to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus have varied from state to state, they’re nearly unanimously popular: According to a recent CBS News poll, 70 percent of respondents said the United States’ top priority should be staying home whenever possible to mitigate the pandemic, and 76 percent of respondents believe such mandates are effective at combating the spread. An additional 56 percent of respondents believe that widespread testing is key to determining when society can safely resume wide scale interaction — and many hospitals and labs still lack the resources and support to ensure safe testing to as many people as possible.

Even so, some lawmakers have begun allowing businesses previously deemed non-essential to open back up, and more are planning to follow suit. Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee are among those that have already begun lifting restrictions, and stay-at-home orders in several states including Texas, Florida, and Arizona will expire on April 30. These changes come despite the fact that over 50,000 people in the U.S. have died as a result of the virus, and more cases are confirmed daily. And experts around the country warn that premature openings could create a second wave of infections that may once again overload our health care system.

“The math is unfortunately pretty simple,” New York epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman told the Washington Post. “It’s not a matter of whether infections will increase, but by how much.”

On Monday (April 27), Texas Governor Greg Abbott said businesses would be allowed to reopen on May 1, though that was not a mandate; there have been at least 648 coronavirus-related deaths in the state. Amber Gardner, a family nurse practitioner in Texas, agreed, calling the move “a bit premature.”

“I do understand that people are having a hard time feeding their family,” Gardner told MTV News, stressing a need for “treatment, a vaccine, and/or a reduction in cases and deaths before we loosen the guidelines. We should also have a plan in place just in case we see cases increase. For the hospitals as far as PPE [personal protective equipment], we should have a plan for more testing sites. And I don't think that, from what I've seen, they have a plan.”

Without those plans in place, much of the responsibility to slow the spread of the virus falls upon individual action, and the collective efforts of people working to keep themselves and those around them healthy. Whether you can work or study from home, or if your bosses are opening the doors once more, there are still ways to protect yourself.

Continue to practice social distancing, as much as you can.

If you can, it’s best to maintain the social distancing best practices you’ve adopted over the past several weeks: That means to keep at least 6 feet away from other people as often as you can, avoid crowded spaces, and limit your trips outside your home. Keep your Zoom party plans, too — it’s generally inadvisable to have people over, no matter how careful each of you have been. You can order takeout or pick up food from a restaurant, but it’s probably too early to cozy up in that corner booth. And you should still tip generously, if you can, to help support the workers showing up for their shifts.

“We need to be careful about how we open back up,” Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University’s School of Public Health, told MTV News. “We don't want to just open up all the businesses and have everyone go rushing back outside, because if people have a lot of contact, then we'll see a lot more disease spread. But I think that if it's done well, then there are potential ways to get life moving forward a little bit again.”

As Murray notes, that would include keeping track of infections, increasing the amount of testing, and performing widespread contact tracing. But many states lack the infrastructure to catch up to the number of cases likely in existence already, so social distancing even after restrictions are lifted can help buy time our health care systems desperately need.

“Social distancing will be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another,” Dr. Deborah Birx, a White House public health official, said on Meet the Press on Sunday (April 26). If that’s the case, it might be better to stay used to the current way of life as much as possible, rather than have to readjust to a new round of confinement after a few weeks of leniency.

Wear your mask and wash your hands.

You need to maintain all of the measures to ensure your own hygiene, as well as the safety of everyone else around you, and that includes washing your hands and wearing a mask. While most cloth face masks are meant to protect other people from your germs, that altruism is just as crucial to keeping your community safe.

“Those are things that we should continue throughout the entire year,” Gardner said, adding that it’s a good idea to keep up any disinfecting and cleaning rituals you’ve implemented for household surfaces, keys, and the like. (Just, please, don’t try to disinfect yourself — that’s poisonous.)

She said people should work proactively to maintain their health by eating nutrient-dense food, exercising when and how they can, and trying to limit their stress levels, even if that seems impossible right now. “In the event that you do come in contact with COVID-19, your system can fight it” better than it could if you’re also staving off a pre-existing illness,” she explained.

Maybe rethink that haircut... and that party.

Though Georgia Governor Brian Kemp said that businesses like hair salons and tattoo shops are permitted to open as long as they practice social distancing, it’s almost impossible to do those jobs without getting very close to another person. One Atlanta-area hairstylist told Vox she doesn’t believe the guidelines will be enforced, and that she wasn’t sure how stylists would be able to maintain the volume of PPE, smocks, and other gear needed for each client. “You can’t find that stuff anywhere,” she said.

If you can put off your next hair or nail appointment, you should — or if you live with someone you trust with a pair of scissors or a hair clipper, there are guides out there to help you do it yourself. For everything you absolutely can't put off, Murray stresses contactless interactions, like Venmo payments or chipped credit cards. “Think about how to minimize the time spent, the close proximity, and how to make that time as safe as possible,” she said.

Angel Ohonba, a family nurse practitioner in Houston, Texas, agreed. “This phase of the pandemic is still so vital, and you don't want to try to reestablish your normalcy right now during a time like this,” she said. That includes limiting interaction with other people, ideally to settings of 10 people or fewer. She knows it’s difficult to miss people you love, noting that it’s been hard for her and her husband to maintain distance from their parents, who live in the same city and want to see their grandson. “We just stick to a pact with our siblings and parents,” she said.

Stay home if you feel sick.

That stands whether or not you’re presenting multiple symptoms, or even if you’ve been tested for the virus or antibodies. Experts are still learning a lot about the coronavirus, but we do know that asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers are able to spread the virus to those around them. So sometimes, self-quarantining after you develop chills or a fever can be too late.

“If I leave lockdown tomorrow and I get infected, I can potentially be spreading the disease to other people I come in contact with for three or four days before I even know I have it,” Murray said. “So we can't just rely on people feeling symptoms and then going back into quarantine themselves. We need some way to keep track of who are those people that might've been exposed to someone who was infectious. If I knew that someone I had come in contact with had tested positive, I could stay home for a few days and see if I develop any symptoms.”

Many doctors recommend that if you can ease your symptoms at home, you should, so as to avoid overloading hospitals and limit contact with other people. (If you have a medical emergency, or are experiencing severe symptoms, you can and should contact a health care provider.) But tracing contact is more difficult, and made that much harder when testing is scarce.

Talk to your employer and coworkers about collectively protecting yourselves.

At least 26 million people have filed for unemployment since mid-March, and that is causing a lot of fear for an already financially precarious nation. (Remember: Even before the pandemic, 40 percent of Americans said they wouldn’t have $400 to cover an emergency expense.) So as businesses reopen, many people will feel forced to return to work so they can pay their bills.

While Murray stresses that it’s crucial that employees follow CDC guidelines for hygiene, she also believes employers should step up. “It's also gonna be really important for the employers to make sure that they're getting people paid time off when they're sick, so that employees who are sick don't affect other employees or customers at the workspace,” she said.

“It's also important to remember that an infectious disease is not an individual problem; it's a community problem,” she said. “So we really need community solutions.” Murray believes stimulus payments can help people who have either taken time off work due to illness or who have been laid off or furloughed and now cannot make rent.

While Ohonba believes everyone’s situation will be different, she points out that “it's easier if you have a union to address those measures. But at a time like this, it's important to express your concerns because we all have a right to be concerned about our health and what we may contract and bring to our family members at home.” She advocates for staying abreast of the news, and staying up to date with CDC guidelines as best you can. You may not be able to secure a seat at the bargaining table with your boss, but you can react more quickly with the knowledge you have.

“The way we conduct business, it's changed forever,” Tony Ohonba, Angel’s husband and a Houston-area pharmacist, added. He’s been urging everyone to use the drive-through to pick up their medication, or opt for delivery if they can, rather than enter the store. “If there's some things that you can do from the safety of your home, maybe voice it to your employer,” he said. “And if there's something that you absolutely need to physically travel to work and conduct and be in a public setting, then obviously, make sure you're dialing in the right protective equipment.”

Call your lawmakers.

While Congress passed a $2 trillion stimulus package meant to buffer some of the widespread economic slowdown, known as the CARES Act, much of that money has already run out. Lawmakers approved an additional $370 billion for small businesses, but so far there’s been little oversight in who gets approved for loans, and how much they receive. Black and Latinx-owned businesses are already feeling shorted.

There’s also been little support to people who are trying to apply for unemployment insurance, which is partly by design, and partly because many of the state-run systems were never designed to handle the astronomical spike in applications they’ve seen in recent weeks. There’s also been a delay in people receiving their money. As a result, people are calling their lawmakers to advocate for rent forgiveness, broader student loan forgiveness, and other progressive policies. (You can use a site like 5 Calls to identify your representatives, look up their phone numbers, and follow a script when you leave a message.)

And if states allow businesses to open back up, that may impact the number of people who can qualify for unemployment at all. Compounding that is a general uneasiness toward spending: Plenty of people are saving money or otherwise practicing strict distancing right now, which means businesses may not be able to promise employees sufficient hours or even enough customer traffic to support their employment. Coronavirus unemployment allowed for some of those furloughs, but state restrictions vary.

“We want to make sure that opening up the economy doesn't lead to things like businesses closing and therefore people no longer being eligible for various benefits that they had while being a furloughed employee or something like that,” Murray said. “How to make sure that people still have health insurance, how to make sure that people are not losing their housing because they can't pay rent, how to make sure that people aren't defaulting on their loans — these kinds of things really should be government, top-down decisions. There are things that we kind of predictably know are going to be affecting a lot of people, and most will affect people who are least able to solve these problems themselves.”

You can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not everyone has the option to stay at home, but if you can, you should! Social distancing is the new normal, and we’re here to help.