As the United States begins to reopen after locking down to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, guidance from epidemiologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offer insight on the coming weeks and months.
The guidelines and timelines put forth by the CDC are extremely variable, dependent on the spread of COVID-19 in a particular area and any local and state restrictions that may also apply.
TODAY spoke to epidemiologists and public health experts to talk about what reopening will look like in daily life, what people should continue to avoid, and what safety precautions should still be taken even as the country embraces "the new normal."
What do the different phases of reopening mean?
According to guidelines released by the White House, Phase II means that venues such as "sit-down dining, movie theaters, sporting venues (and) places of worship" can operate "under moderate physical distancing protocols, gyms can reopen if they adhere to "strict physical distancing and sanitation protocols" and bars may operate with diminished, standing-room only capacity "where applicable and appropriate." People can gather in larger groups, but should not number more than 50.
Elective surgeries can also resume, though hospital and senior care facility visits should still be prohibited.
It's recommended that during this phase, employers encourage telework wherever possible, and special accommodations should exist for vulnerable individuals.
During Phase II, high-risk individuals should continue to shelter in place.
Phase III, when reached, will have fewer limitations, allow for larger gatherings, and mean that most employees can return to the office.
Robert Hecht, Ph.D., a professor of clinical epidemiology at Yale University, said it was extremely important that reopening continue at a gradual pace.
"We don't really know how this is going to go, and being able to try out certain things and then test and see whether people are getting infected or whether it's going well and then moving on is important," he said. "Phasing is important. Monitoring and testing really closely so we know if it's working or not is important. The worst thing would be operating in the dark ... We just need to do it one step at a time. There's so much that we will need to learn and adjust as we go along."
What will daily life look like?
As states and cities reopen, things will begin to look more normal, with non-essential businesses opening and restaurants serving meals. However, there are still significant changes, like businesses sticking to curbside pick-up and restaurants only operating outdoors.
"Everything will look a little bit off," said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, the Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "I think we'll have fewer people in stores, people will be behind Plexiglass, more people will be wearing masks. Many more people will be working from home. You won't see a lot of hugging or high-fives or handshakes. I think that it will look like a version of the way things were, but every part will look different."
Dr. Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, said that people should still avoid crowded gatherings in indoor spaces.
"Things that are outside obviously do not have zero risk but have substantially lower risk," he said, adding that restaurants and businesses would be safer if they maintained things like curbside pick-up and al fresco dining.
"During outdoor dining, tables and chairs do still need to be spaced apart," he said.
Do I still have to wear a mask?
All four epidemiologists that TODAY spoke with were in agreement: It's still essential to wear a mask or other cloth face covering, which can help slow the spread of the virus.
CDC guidelines also echo the need for a mask. Other precautions, like social distancing and only going out when necessary, should also continue as much as possible.
"This is not over yet," said Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and trained immunologist. "You should still be doing all the things we were doing before, to the best of your ability — masks, social distancing, really keeping social engagements to a bare minimum, keeping interactions to a bare minimum."
Can kids go to camp or school?
According to the CDC, youth camps and schools can open during the second phase of reopening, but should take precautions like keeping children in small groups and emphasizing masks and social distancing as much as possible.
"Universities are so big," Shan said. "It's basically like holding a major sporting event every day, for each of those campuses. And when you start doing the math for what that testing means, opening at least one university will consume the same amount of tests that an entire state is currently doing."
What will workplaces look like?
Sharftsein said that people will likely be working from home where possible for at least the next few months and said that cramped offices could be a high-risk environment. Some companies, like Twitter and Facebook, have already told employees that they can work from home permanently.
According to the CDC, employers and business operators should make decisions "based on both the level of disease transmission in the community and your readiness to protect the safety and health of your employees and customers."
For those who do go into the office, expect some changes, like continued mask-wearing and more distancing between co-workers. Some have suggested that workplaces will have staggered hours or alternating staff schedules to minimize the amount of people who are in the building at one time. Testing will also be important, especially in organizations that frequently work with the public.
"The testing frequency matters, based on risk," said Soe-Lin. "If you are a responsible employer and you're bringing people back and they're interfacing a lot with each other, ideally you should be testing your employees every three to four days, or at least weekly."