2 infectious disease experts explain what our ‘new normal’ will look like in offices, childcare, and restaurants

An operator wearing a protective face mask works in a call centre for contact tracing, May 8, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.

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An operator wearing a protective face mask works in a call centre for contact tracing, May 8, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium.
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Laurie Dieffembacq/Belga/AFP via Getty Images
  • As states begin reopening, two infectious-disease experts discussed what the ‘new normal’ might look like in a variety of arenas.
  • Workplaces should institute screenings and maintain distance between employees, for example, and young kids may be clustered in pods at school.
  • Restaurant workers may wear shields and keep logs of their patrons.
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Five months ago, Americans could weasel their way up to a crowded bar, literally bump into colleagues in the office, and greet first dates with a hug.

But as the coronavirus pandemic has worn on, it’s become increasingly clear that emerging from the depths of it won’t mean returning to those old ways, at least right away, but rather adapting to a new normal – if we don’t want to virus to persist or get even worse.

“As everyone knows, the response to COVID-19 has brought rapid and deep change to really every aspect of our life, not just healthcare, but how we learn, how we eat, how we travel, where and how we work, how we interact with our friends and neighbors,” Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor of medicine in the University of Michigan’s Division of Infectious Diseases, recently said during an Infectious Diseases Society of America webinar.

During the webinar, she and another IDSA fellow, Dr. Leonard A. Mermel, medical director of the Department of Epidemiology & Infection Control at Rhode Island Hospital, discussed what that first phase of a “new normal” might look like in areas ranging from childcare to restaurants.

Screening at workplaces, not testing

A manufacturing plant is different from a law firm, and a law firm in New York City is different than one in Montana.

But no matter your work environment, screening for symptoms of COVID-19 – the disease caused by the novel coronavirus – will be a key step in keeping you, your colleagues, your family, and your community safe, Malani said.

“The most fundamental thing we can do to prevent workplace transmission and subsequent spread to the community is making sure that employees are not coming to work sick and if they are sick, getting them assessed and tested so that we know whether they can come back, and when they can come back.”

Constantly testing all employees, even when they don’t show symptoms, is unsustainable and unrealistic, she said. So is making a test a requirement of employment, Mermel added.

“Too much emphasis on testing will give employers and potentially employees a false sense of security,” he said, since a test simply reflects a moment in time.

More important than testing is “a foundation of good infection control and prevention practice,” Mermel said. That means making sure workers are screened for symptoms before coming to work, wearing masks, setting up hygiene stations, and having things like paper towels available as a barrier for high-touch surfaces like elevator buttons.

Keeping workers at least 6 feet apart, perhaps by assigning people to shifts when they use the cafeteria, for instance, could help too.

Childcare centers could use a “pod system” for kids

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends strategies childcare centers can use to minimize risk. For instance, Mermel said, centers could use a “pod system” in which a teacher is assigned just a small group of children they remain with all day, every day.

“And that pod of children aren’t physically interacting with another group of children, such that if they need to do contact tracing, we have a limited number of kids or instructors that they have to deal with,” Mermel said.

That’s on top of making sure kids are screened for symptoms before being dropped off. Older children can be required to wear masks.

While it seems children are less susceptible to COVID-19 and are less likely to be hospitalized, it’s still unclear whether they can be asymptomatic carriers of disease and spread it to their households, Mermel said.

Customers are seen at Puckett's Grocery & Restaurant on April 27, 2020 in Franklin, TN.

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Customers are seen at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant on April 27, 2020 in Franklin, TN.
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Jason Kempin/Getty Images

Restaurants may keep a log of everyone who dines there

In some cities and states, people are already experiencing the new normal of dining out: Eating a place that, at most, is half full; sitting at least 6 feet apart from other diners; eating with only a few others; and giving orders to masked or shielded servers.

Those strategies are likely to implemented as more restaurants reopen, Mermel said. Restaurants might also screen workers twice a day and keep a log of customers so if a worker or another patron ends up contracting COVID-19, it can implement contact tracing.

In all of these areas, Americans have a continued responsibility to keep each other safe, Malani said. Maybe that means turning the car around if the grocery store parking lot looks to crowded, as well as continuing to carry hand-sanitizer, wash your hands frequently, and where a mask if you go somewhere where maintaining 6 feet from other people is difficult.

“You can’t eliminate risk. You can decrease risk. None of this is going to be perfect or easy, and there’s going to be some residual risks no matter what,” she said. “But some basic public-health-informed practices can help prevent large outbreaks and help protect our most vulnerable populations.”