Fall is here and with the cooler temperatures and fall foliage also comes a whole host of traditions – football and the holidays to name a few. Phase 3 in North Carolina also allows movie theatres, amusement parks and outdoor venues to reopen with limited capacity, which presents a new set of questions about how to navigate this season in good health.

Dr. Genevieve Brauning in a white coat.
Dr. Genevieve Brauning

Dr. Genevieve Brauning at Novant Health SouthPark Family Physicians said conversations about COVID-19 make up about half of what she’s discussing with patients. She offered advice on how to navigate this time of year, stressing that decisions about a lot of situations are not black and white.

“We have a lot of control over our own risk and I think that’s empowering,” Brauning said. “We have things we know we can do to protect ourselves, like wearing a mask and washing our hands, but we also have the freedom to walk away from a situation that doesn’t appear safe.”

Voting

Election polls will have measures in place that are similar to grocery stores. There will be an effort to social distance in line and poll workers will be masked. I think in-person voting can be done safely if you wear a mask and use hand sanitizer.

We also have the option for early voting in North Carolina, which will help to spread out the number of people at polling locations on a given day. That’s a great option to consider. However, if you’re a high-risk individual – you have underlying conditions, are sick or elderly – consider voting absentee by mail. You must request a ballot by 5 p.m. Oct. 27 for the Nov. 3 election. You can also drop your ballot off at early voting sites.

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Bars

If going to a bar is important to you, wear a mask anytime you are not drinking or eating and sanitize your hands often. Since people cannot consistently mask at bars and restaurants, understand that there is an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 in these spaces. You can reduce some of this risk by choosing outdoor seating or an open-air space.

Also, feel empowered to evaluate the space and safety measures that are in place. Did they reduce the number of tables and seats? Are their employees masked? Do you see employees wiping tables down? If the answer is no, you may want to leave and find a safer option. Alcohol clouds judgement – both yours and for those around you. This could increase the risk as well.

Football season

Fall covid risk guide
Click image to download printable guide

I consider football games a much more challenging place to be able to minimize risk. We consider high-risk contact to be less than six feet apart, unmasked and in an enclosed space for more than 10 minutes. So, if you can’t be more than six feet apart, you really need to wear a mask.

Keep the tailgates outside, where air circulation is better. Remember to stay in small groups and make space to spread out. If everyone agrees to wear a mask but people aren’t keeping their masks on, you can make the decision to leave. We all have the freedom to walk away from a situation that doesn’t feel safe.

Bowling alleys and movie theatres

It depends on the business and their attention to detail. For bowling alleys, evaluate how crowded the space is, how often the bowling balls are being sanitized and so on. Wash your hands often so you don’t have to worry as much about transmission of COVID-19 from the actual bowling ball. You can reduce risk by having consistent sanitation methods, but it can also be a really high-risk zone if it’s not done correctly.

For movie theatres, consider how much distance they’re offering between groups of people. You can’t change the fact that you will be in an enclosed space for more than 10 minutes, but you can wear a mask and bring a Lysol or Clorox wipe to sanitize your seat and cup holder.

Halloween and trick-or-treating

Dr. David Priest, chief safety and epidemiology officer at Novant Health, also offered advice for Halloween. He said that trick-or-treating is still safe “as long as you avoid large groups of people.” Priest suggested moving the celebration outside, where the chance of contracting COVID-19 is lower. Other advice includes decorating masks to go with children’s costumes and portioning out candy in individual plastic bags where people can walk by and pick them up as they go.

Black Friday shopping

This is another place where you’ll be in an enclosed area for an extended period. It’s possible that Black Friday will not draw the crowds that it has in years past, so the space might be safe, but it’s hard to say. Evaluate if people are adequately social distancing and wearing masks. Ask yourself what the gain is for taking on this risk and how important it is to you. Online shopping is always an option, too.

The holidays

This is a tough one. We will have to see what the transmission rates are as the year goes on, but we also need to consider the risk versus benefit. Spending time with family is so important for some people. Socializing with a group indoors is higher risk, but I also think this yields a bigger benefit. If you live in a mild climate, take advantage of hosting gatherings outside. If not, make an effort to keep the group smaller. Maybe you have two family gatherings instead of one.

Be very diligent about masking around family members who are at increased risk. We should all be dedicated to making this the safest space possible for them. That might mean creating a zone around them so they can have at least six feet of distance. This isn’t the year we should be hugging or kissing a grandparent. Elderly family members are often the people who need family connection the most. They already feel isolated and fearful, so we can honor their need to connect with us in the safest way possible.

Flying to your destination can be done safely, but it can’t be done risk-free. There are pretty good masking mandates and aggressive sanitation measures at airports and on airplanes. Early data on airline travel has actually been pretty good. It has not been the super spreader event that people feared it would be. If you must fly, aggressively sanitize your hands, wear a mask and even consider wearing goggles as coronavirus can be transmitted through the eyes.

The bottom line: fall activities and the holidays are not canceled. Evaluate how much risk you are willing to take and always wear a mask when social distancing is not possible.