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

As the number of people infected with the novel coronavirus continues to grow, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are recommending social distancing to help mitigate the spread of the virus. ICYMI, social distancing means steering clear of public places, avoiding large gatherings (no more than 10 people, per the White House's recent guidelines) and maintaining six feet of personal space from others when possible.

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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That said, as much as you can hunker down at home, odds are you can't avoid stepping outside altogether. So, what can you do to keep yourself (and others) safe when you must 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.

That said, living on total lockdown may not be feasible or realistic for most people. Even if you're able to work remotely 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).

2. Be Prepared

When you must 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.

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. 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 (even before putting groceries away)" so you don't spread any germs around your home, Dr. Harry says.

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.

5. 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?

To reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 infections, it is best to call your doctor before leaving the house if you are experiencing a high fever, shortness of breath or another, more serious symptom.
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