How do I decide what’s safe, Part II: Using your tool kit

In Part I, NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid presented a way to analyze the risk of engaging in certain activities since stay-at-home restrictions are loosening. She now uses that risk-assessment "tool kit" to consider a couple of specific examples: getting together with friends and getting a haircut.

Coins spilling out of a jar

This is your social contact budget. Spend it wisely. Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

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For months, public health guidance was clear: if you don't have to go out, don't. The goal was to slow the spread of coronavirus and "flatten the curve." And at least as of a month ago, the curve seemed to be flattening in many places. This article does a nice job illustrating the trends in case numbers across the U.S.

But now, many states are lifting some restrictions, so we have a lot more choices about how to behave, with no definitive guidance from public health authorities. In Part I of "How do I decide what's safe," we ditched the question "Is it safe?" in favor of two new questions: "How safe is this relative to other activities?" and "Can we modify this activity to make it safer?"

Each of us should ask ourselves these two questions about each new activity we consider. And not just for ourselves. The curve may have flattened, but the virus is not gone. The choices we make affect our whole community. That's why I like the image of a piggy bank. Instead of thinking "I can do whatever I want, as long as I'm careful," perhaps it would be better to think "I want to contribute as little as possible to the spread of this virus, so I will spend my social contact coins extremely carefully."

In Part I, we boiled the risk calculation down to just five factors:

  1. How big is the space you're in and how many people are in it?
  2. What's that space like?
  3. How long are you spending in that space?
  4. What are you doing in that space?
  5. How likely is it that there's an infected person in that space?

Let's do a risk analysis of two different scenarios. If you're a teacher, your students (and if my experience is any guide, your friends and neighbors, too) will no doubt generate many scenarios of their own:

The "I miss my friends" scenario

Which is riskier?

I get it, you’re dying to see your friends. I am too. But what if someone in your graduating class of 100 students suggests having a potluck gathering at a picnic area at a local park? Is this a good idea? A gathering outside in a park is safer than getting together indoors. But gathering around a set of picnic tables might make it hard to stay 6 feet apart, especially for such a large group. Furthermore, a potluck increases the risk of picking up the virus from a shared utensil or bottle of hot sauce.

The first question you have to ask: "Is this absolutely necessary?" Definitely not. If you live with someone at high risk (a grandparent, say) or in a high-risk community (one with lots of essential workers, for example), a non-essential gathering like this is probably still not a good idea. But if those conditions are met and you absolutely want to spend some of your social contact budget on it, how could you make it as safe as possible? Coming up with ideas would be a great exercise for your students — I would love to hear their ideas!

Here are mine. The easiest way is to cut down the risk is to cut down on the number of people. One hundred at a time is a lot. Maybe break the class down into groups of fewer than 20. That reduces the risk that there will be an infected person in the group. And furthermore, if there is an infected person in the group, there will be fewer people potentially contracting and spreading the virus further.

Meet outside on a sunny day, and don't involve food. Keep the gathering short — no more than an hour (it's hard to stay cautious forever, and if someone is infected, it's important not to let down your guard). Consider drawing or using string to make social distancing "guidance circles". You could even make a game of having everyone change circles every few minutes so you get to chat with everyone.

Do I have to remind you that everyone should wear a mask?

Is this as much fun as a big picnic? Maybe not, but it's a lot safer. There will be lots of time for picnics when this is over.

The "I'm desperate for a haircut!" scenario

Which is riskier?

Haircuts. Manicures. Massages. Some things just can't be done from six feet away. These all occur indoors, often in quite small places, and they take a while to finish. It adds ups to a lot of risk for transmitting or contracting the coronavirus. Perhaps the only activities that carry a higher risk are those where a lot of people are crowded together indoors, especially if they're actively exercising, singing, or sharing equipment or hymnals. So gyms, crowded churches, and dance floors are riskier than getting a haircut. Still, getting a haircut — much less having your hair colored, permed, or braided — is still pretty risky.

And it's potentially an accelerator of community transmission. A Great Clips hair salon in Springfield, Missouri, recently had to shut down because two infected stylists potentially exposed dozens of clients.

Haircuts are not essential. No one ever died from a bad hair day. On the other hand, my husband, who is a wonderful man, does not deserve to be walking around in the haircut that I reluctantly provided.

So if it's that important to you, and you want to spend some of your precious social contact budget on getting your hair done, how could you make it safer? Contact your salon or barbershop and ask what precautions they've put in place. My stylist sent out an email explaining that when she is allowed to re-open (not yet in San Francisco), clients will have to book an online appointment to discuss what they want to have done. Only one client will be allowed in the salon at a time. Doors and windows will be open. The stylist and client will both be masked. Minimal chitchat. No blow drying. Everything wiped down between clients.

I was impressed. That's a pretty thorough list of ways to minimize the risk of an inherently risky activity. And adhering to these rules is going to cost the salon a lot of business — it's a small place, but it routinely had two to three stylists working at the same time. If you go to a larger establishment, find out how many people they're allowing to be there together.

Lucky for me, I let my hair go grey many years ago so I don't have to worry about my roots showing.

As for how long my hair might get, I'm now considering that a science experiment.

Got a scenario and a risk analysis? Send them to Lin Andrews, NCSE director of teacher support, at

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
Short Bio

Ann Reid is the Executive Director of NCSE.

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