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From voting to grocery shopping: The risk level associated with 6 activities during the COVID-19 pandemic

Local infectious disease experts weigh in on risk of different activities

SAN ANTONIOEditor’s note: This content was created exclusively for KSAT Explains, a new, weekly streaming show that dives deep into the biggest issues facing San Antonio and South Texas. Watch past episodes here and download the KSAT-TV app to stay up on the latest.

With COVID-19 cases surging in Bexar County and businesses across the state reopening, a lot of people are questioning where they can go safely. It’s far from an exact science, but two local health experts — Dr. Jan Patterson, an infectious disease doctor at University Hospital and a UT Health professor of medicine, and Dr. Ruth Berggren with UT Health San Antonio’s Long School of Medicine — weighed in on the safety of the following activities.

In-Person Voting

This has been a hot topic across the country but is heating up locally because of the upcoming runoff election, for which early voting begins June 29.

Health experts have raised concerns that having crowds turn out to indoor polling places could lead to the spread of the virus. In an effort to limit the amount of social interaction required to vote, the Texas Democratic Party, civil rights organizations and individual voters have sued the state in an effort to expand who qualifies for mail-in voting.

Long story short, the issue is still snaking through the courts, with the U.S. Supreme Court having the final say. So for now, Texas mail-in voting remains limited. That means most voters will have to physically go to their polling place to cast a ballot. But is it safe?

“It’s probably low to moderate risk if the voter is wearing a mask and if everyone else is wearing a mask,” said Patterson.

Health experts and elections administrators also recommend voting early on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, days when the polls usually see less traffic.

“In-person voting can be made safer by going early, by making sure there aren’t crowds there, by being really prepared so that you can get in and get out,” said Berrgren.

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping can be relatively safe as long as people are wearing face coverings and staying socially distant when possible.

“Distancing when you’re standing in line,” said Patterson. “Staying a distance away from the person in front of you.”

Going to the Mall

If you’re going to shop at the mall, try to go at a time when there won’t be as many people there. If you make a trip during the weekend, it will likely be hard for you to keep your distance from other shoppers.

My personal experience is that it was hard to stay away from people,” said Berggren of a recent trip to the mall. “I saw people bunched up waiting to get into stores and not really observing the distancing.”

Drinking at a Bar or Eating at a Restaurant

Both doctors we talked to issued a warning about drinking at bars.

“As soon as you consume alcohol, your inhibitions are lowered and you’re going to be less likely to observe all of these measures,” said Berggren. “It’s also tough to predict the behavior of other people who are consuming alcohol.”

While alcohol is also consumed at restaurants, experts say it is probably easier to follow safety protocols there.

Going to a Friend or Family Member’s House

A lot of people want to make social distancing exceptions for family members outside of their households, especially during holidays and special occasions. But it’s not necessarily a good idea.

“We’re seeing that those kinds of events, where extended families get together, are in the background of a lot of the cases that are coming into the hospital right now,” said Berggren.

When it comes to going about your life during a pandemic, it’s hard to rank the risk of different activities because there are several factors to consider: How many people are you around? How long are you close to them? Are you indoors or outdoors?

“It’s all about mitigating the risk,” said Patterson. “We’ve learned now that we’re going to have to live with this virus for a while and we can get out and do things safely if we’re using the right precautions.”

On demand, in-depth perspective. It’s the goal of a new digital KSAT show. This week’s episode of KSAT Explains will focus on the battle brewing across Texas over the proposed expansion of mail-in voting. Watch the trailer below.

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