The Step-by-Step Guide to Leaving and Returning Home During Social Distancing

When you're practicing social distancing but still need to leave the house, there are steps you can take to avoid bringing germs home with you.
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With the novel coronavirus still circulating and no vaccine or treatment yet available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are recommending social distancing to help mitigate the spread of the virus. ICYMI, social distancing means avoiding crowds and staying at least six feet from others whenever possible.

That said, as much as you can hunker down at home, odds are you can't avoid stepping outside altogether, especially as businesses begin to open back up. So, what can you do to keep safe when you venture beyond your front door?

Below, health experts offer tips to help you stay healthy and avoid putting others at risk.

Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

1. First, Determine Whether Leaving Home Is Essential

Before you set foot outside, be sure the trip is absolutely necessary, says Eudene Harry, MD, a board-certified emergency medicine and holistic integrative medicine physician and medical director for Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center.

Ask yourself whether you can manage the task from home or delay it until a later date, she says. "For example, do you need to go to the office or can you telework? Is this a recreational activity that can be postponed? Will it create more potential exposure?"

If the outing isn't of the essence or may put you at unnecessary risk, it's better to stay in, even as businesses begin to open their doors.

That said, most people are going to begin venturing out as states shift into more lenient phases of lockdown. Even if you're able to work from home, you still have basic needs to meet and essential errands to run: Replenishing groceries, picking up medication or taking your dog out to do its business are all unavoidable, valid reasons to leave your home.

What about taking a walk or a jog? For some, this type of physical activity is monumental for maintaining mental health. If you need to get some fresh air to preserve your sanity and reduce your stress levels, you can do that, says Dr. Harry, as long as your stroll is a solo activity that falls in alignment with social distancing (i.e., keep a radius of six feet between you and others).

While it's better to wait a little longer before you head back to the gym, some states have started to re-open facilities with new safety protocols in place. If you're absolutely committed to hitting the gym, familiarize yourself with the facility's safety rules, wear a mask as often as possible and wash your hands frequently.

2. Be Prepared

When you leave the safety of home, "planning is number one," says Jason Kindrachuk, PhD, a virologist at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Consider: How can you minimize your time in completing your tasks? How can you avoid close contact with others or large groups?

Though you may not be able to completely evade interactions with others, try to time your trips during nonpeak hours when fewer people are out and about.

And always pack hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and tissues (in case you inadvertently sneeze — after all, it is still allergy season), Dr. Harry adds.

Equally important, she recommends adopting the mindset, "I must not touch my face." Make it your mantra.

Remember: Many pathogens — including the novel coronavirus — get into our bodies through our eyes, nose and mouth, so keeping your fingers away from these points of entry is paramount.

Wash your hands before you leave the house and immediately when you return to avoid spreading germs.
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3. Take a Breath

If this pandemic is producing feelings of panic, you're not alone. "This is an anxiety-provoking time for many," says Jennie Marie Battistin, LMFT, a California-based licensed marriage family therapist and founding director of Hope Therapy Center.

And stepping outside your home — i.e., your protective bubble — can feel scary and unsafe, especially as more and more people start to do so.

That's why it's important to breathe and center yourself, Battistin says. "Take a moment to steady yourself before you leave the house. Stop at your door and say out loud, I can take care of myself, I can remember to wash my hands and I can take steps to keep myself aware and healthy."

4. Keep Your Pets Safe, Too

The CDC reports that the risk of animals spreading the coronavirus to humans is low, but the virus may spread from people to animals in some situations. It suggests treating your pets as you would other human family members in order to protect them from infection. This includes:

  • Do not let pets interact with people or other animals outside the household.
  • Keep cats indoors when possible to prevent them from interacting with other animals or people.
  • Walk dogs on a leash, maintaining at least six feet from other people and animals.
  • Avoid dog parks or public places where a large number of people and dogs gather.


Talk to your veterinarian if you have questions about your pet's health.

5. Gather Safely

As states begin to lift lockdown measures, businesses and recreational facilities will start opening back up. While you may feel inclined to fall back to your usual gym routine or host a backyard cookout, your day-to-day life won't (and shouldn't) look identical to previous years. But there is a safe way to gather in groups.

For the time being, it's recommended that you keep up with most of the social distancing protocols in place. Wear a face mask consistently and maintain a six-foot distance from other people when possible, whether you're meeting for a brief moment or longer period of time, recommends Dr. Harry.

Meet with friends in spaces that allow for a six-foot radius between people and keep gatherings outside as often as you can, she says. Staying outdoors not only allows for more distancing but also decreases the amount of circulated air between people.

While there's no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to transmission of the coronavirus, the volume at which you speak might make a difference, too. Speaking in louder voices may increase the amount of droplets you release into the air, according to a February 2019 study published in Scientific Reports). Although research was not conducted on the novel coronavirus specifically, keeping your voice lowered and wearing a mask probably won't hurt.

Although small gatherings will grow more common, adults over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions should continue to avoid group gatherings, especially in large numbers, recommends the CDC.

6. As Soon as You Return, Clean and Disinfect

Even if you practiced social distancing, chances are you still encountered someone else's germs at the grocery store checkout, the stairwell in your building or somewhere else along the way.

"On returning home, immediately go to the sink and wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water" so you don't spread any germs around your home, Dr. Harry says. This means before you put your groceries away and before you pet any animals in your household.

And use a paper towel to dry yours hands, adds University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD. "If you use a cloth towel, do not share with other members of the family, wash it in hot water and dry it on a high-heat setting."

Then disinfect any surfaces or objects you might've tainted with dirty hands. Wipe down your phone, doorknobs, the faucet, light switches and everything else your fingers touched. And don't forget to wipe down any purchases you've brought into your home as well, preferably with a sanitizer that's at least 60 percent alcohol.

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7. Stay Up-to-Date on the Guidelines

Lastly, as the coronavirus situation continues to evolve rapidly, so do the safety guidelines and recommendations.

For this reason, Kindrachuk strongly suggests you stay informed by checking with reputable sources such as the CDC, the World Health Organization or your local public health department.

Concerned About COVID-19?

Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker before leaving the house.