Given the events of the past three months, many of us are newly converted germaphobes, transformed from the kind of people who would ride the subway to a café and eat a croissant without washing our hands on arrival to the sort who are terrified to pass someone too closely on a sidewalk.
Dr. Bonnie Henry gets it: “We scared people and, once you scare them, it’s hard to undo.” As provincial health officer for British Columbia (and author of “Soap and Water & Common Sense,” a guide to avoiding viruses, parasites and disease), it was Henry’s job to scare us. It worked! But now we need to learn to live in this new normal.
So now that we’ve entered Stage 2 of reopening across Ontario, we have questions. Throw off your mask (if you’re at home!) and settle in for some expert answers.
How often should I wash my face masks?
“Cloth face masks should be washed in a washing machine after every use,” advises Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, an expert in microbiology and an associate professor at York University. They should be dried in a dryer “or outside, especially now that the weather is hot.”
No washing machine? “Put the mask in hot water with detergent, let it sit for 30 minutes and then rinse.”
If you have a single-use mask and you can’t readily get more, Golemi-Kotra suggests allowing it to dry out in a box for three days. But if the mask has been used extensively in crowded areas or for a prolonged time, throw it in the garbage.
What kind of mask is best?
Face masks essentially act as a filter, so the more layers a mask has, the more effective it is, says Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and the author of two books on germs. An N95 mask has 250 layers (although the public has been asked to leave those for medical professionals and other front-line workers), while a cotton bandana has two or four.
What if someone walks by me within two metres and we’re not wearing masks?
“Unless someone is actively coughing or sneezing in your direction, the risk of getting infected when you’re on the move is low,” says Golemi-Kotra. Henry agrees and adds that more risk lies in “sitting next to someone in a coffee shop, having a conversation, sitting in a meeting room where people are talking, or going to a church service and standing next to someone who’s singing.”
Is it a good idea to wear gloves?
“With gloves, you actually end up picking up more (particles) from surfaces and you can’t effectively use a hand sanitizer,” Tetro says. “If you’re using gloves because you think there might be coronavirus on that melon you’re knocking on, just use your hands.” Then wash them or use sanitizer if that’s not possible.
Should I avoid the subway?
Tetro does advise avoiding public transportation if you can. “All of those ‘tubes’ — buses, subways, planes — are basically like emergency rooms,” he explains. “They’re usually crowded and full of people whose health status you don’t know.” If you need to take transit, wear a mask, as the TTC mandates, and maintain as much distance as you can. Henry recommends using transit in off-peak times if possible.
Is it safe to eat in a restaurant?
Recently, Henry went to a newly reopened restaurant for the first time. “It was a bit nerve-wracking,” she admits, but she took comfort in the measures that she and her team had put in place: capacity limits, tables far apart, frequent cleaning and servers taking orders from a distance.
Worried about using restaurant cutlery? Don’t be, says Tetro. “Most restaurants have hot water dishwashers and as long as the water reaches 65 degrees Celsius, you’re fine.”
What about takeout coffee?
The main concern is drinking from a potentially contaminated lid. Tetro warns against using lids left on the counter because you have no idea who has coughed or sneezed on them. “If the barista puts on a lid behind the counter using gloves, there should be no risk,” he says.
We all touch the same hand sanitizer pump in stores. Is that dangerous?
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Not really, says Golemi-Kotra, since you’re hitting your hands with the sanitizer after they’re contaminated. Make sure you’re doing that properly: “Put a generous amount of the sanitizer and rub those hands and fingers as you would do when washing hands.”
What’s the safest way to have people over?
Henry recently had friends come to visit on her lawn. “I put a bottle of wine and glasses on a tray in the middle, poured it and then everyone got their own glasses.” She served individually wrapped treats. “Last night, I went to a friend’s house for dinner. She has a long table, and I sat at one end and she and her husband sat at the other.” If in doubt, follow Henry’s motto: “Fewer faces, bigger spaces.”