Why Hunkering Down for Coronavirus Matters

A Harvard University student waits with her belongings to return home to Florida after in-person classes were canceled. Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Schools and offices are closed. There are no sports or concerts to attend. Restaurants, stores and churches are ghost towns. And there's a cap and gown sitting on my dining room table for a graduation ceremony in May that's unlikely to happen.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this is the new normal.

The argument for closings

Many places have shut down due to the threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Early on, some offices began offering their employees the chance to work from home. Then schools and school systems began to follow suit. Large gatherings of people — concerts, conventions, parades — all fell in line.

Many people were relieved at these official attempts at social distancing, while others thought they were extreme.

But experts point out that it's all about "flattening the curve." The quicker society gets out in front of an outbreak with control measures like social distancing, the easier it is to quell the spread, as this simple image shows:

control measures and coronavirus and healthcare system
Control measures like social distancing will have an impact on how the health system is able to cope. Esther Kim and Carl T. Bergstrom [CC-BY-2.0]

The impact of closing schools early is demonstrated in an analysis from the Spanish flu of 1918. Researchers looked at the differences between schools were proactive and closed early in the pandemic versus those that were reactive and canceled later on. The study, published in JAMA, found that being proactive was lifesaving. St. Louis closed schools just about a day before the epidemic spiked and kept them shut for 143 days. Pittsburgh closed schools a week after the peak and only for 53 days. The death rate was about one-third as high in St. Louis as it was in Pittsburgh.

"Proactive school closures — closing schools before there's a case there — have been shown to be one of the most powerful nonpharmaceutical interventions that we can deploy," Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist and physician at Yale University, tells Science. "Proactive school closures work like reactive school closures not just because they get the children, the little vectors, removed from circulation. It's not just about keeping the kids safe. It's keeping the whole community safe. When you close the schools, you reduce the mixing of the adults — parents dropping off at the school, the teachers being present. When you close the schools, you effectively require the parents to stay home."

But that's also the problem with closings, especially schools. Many parents can't work from home and don't have other childcare options if schools and daycare centers are closed. Also, many children rely on the free meals that are provided at school. If there's no school, there's no food.

Some communities have tried to take this into consideration, offering support to families on a local level. A proposed federal coronavirus relief bill would also provide additional help to families struggling to feed their kids at home.

What about dining out?

empty tables at San Francisco restaurant
Tables sit empty at a popular San Francisco restaurant in mid-March as people began to show caution about dining out. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

You may be stocked up on nonperishables, but not everyone can survive on canned soup and beans. Though a nice carryout or dine-in meal may sound delicious, many people have been hesitant to head to restaurants.

The virus can't be spread by food, but it can be spread through surfaces. So you can get sick if someone contagious touched the table, soda machine, napkin dispenser or didn't properly wash before handling your food. In addition, if someone sitting near you sneezes or coughs, they can send the virus your way via airborne droplets.

If you're healthy and take precautions you should be able to eat out without a lot of risk. Keep your hands clean, don't touch your face and don't sit shoulder to shoulder with other diners. Older people or those with underlying medical conditions should eat at home.

If you really don't want to cook one more thing, it's likely safer to have delivery than dining out. Some delivery services are allowing customers to request food be left at the front door to limit contact with other people. Delivery drivers are being urged to clean their cars and insulated bags and to stay home if they are sick.

Larry Lynch, senior vice president of certification and operations for the National Restaurant Association, tells USA Today that his group is advising restaurants to pay closer attention to drivers and make sure they aren't showing any symptoms. But it's key that you wash your hands after you handle any packaging.

"I think contactless delivery is a good alternative," says food safety expert Benjamin Chapman, a professor at North Carolina State University. "We don't really have a good sense that packaging is a good place to transfer this pathogen."

Staying social ... and busy

While so many people hunkering down at home, it's still important to stay connected. If you're teleworking, no doubt you're using tools to chat and talk with coworkers. For some people, this isn't a new experience. For others, who are used to pulling up laptops to collaborate, it can feel very isolating to the point of anxiety and depression.

That's why it's important to keep in touch. Use chats, texts and video calls to talk to coworkers, friends and family. Maybe you can have a virtual book club on Skype or Facebook Messenger. Email the grandparents lots of photos of the kids and the dogs.

And you might feel a little stir crazy because you're mostly stuck at home. That doesn't mean you have to curl up on the couch. In stress-free times, self-care is particularly important. So exercise, even if it means taking a walk around the neighborhood or running up and down the stairs. Eat well, get plenty of sleep and take lots of deep breaths.

Find things you enjoy, like doing crosswords, reading, knitting or playing boardgames. Teach the dog some tricks, sort through your stuff and just take advantage of all the time you have.

Do your part to 'flatten the curve'

cap and gown in a bag
A cap and gown ready for commencement in May may not get used. Mary Jo DiLonardo

It was surprising when the first big parades and music festivals were canceled. Then it was NBA games, March Madness, spring training and other professional sports. Local and state governments don't want large groups of people to gather.

Heck, it took everything for me to convince my aging parents to skip Sunday mass. (And I'm still not convinced they'll really stay home.)

But again, look at that graphic earlier in this story about flattening the curve. If we stay home, fewer people will get exposed and fewer people will get sick.

Matt Pearce of The Los Angeles Times sums it up this way:

So maybe we'll push my son to parade around the cul-de-sac in his cap and gown as the neighbors wave and cheer from over their backyard fence.

It's the temporary new normal, and if it works, it will be worth it.