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How can people be safe from COVID-19 in public restrooms and elevators? We asked.

Experts offer guidance on how to manage busy, dense parts of public life
Social distancing measure in place in the restroom include blocking off a urinal and sinks to allow space between guests. The Florida Aquarium held a special members only Mother's Day event on Sunday, May 10, 2020 in Tampa. Experts say people should take precautions in public restrooms and potentially crowded spaces like elevators.
Social distancing measure in place in the restroom include blocking off a urinal and sinks to allow space between guests. The Florida Aquarium held a special members only Mother's Day event on Sunday, May 10, 2020 in Tampa. Experts say people should take precautions in public restrooms and potentially crowded spaces like elevators. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 22, 2020

As more Floridians are venturing out of their homes and into businesses, they’re also walking back into public restrooms and busy areas.

Expert guidance for preventing coronavirus transmission still tells people to limit contact with others as much as possible. But in an area with as much foot traffic as a restroom, what steps can people take to protect themselves?

Cindy Prins, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said she recommends people wear a mask into a restroom.

She said though there’s some evidence coronavirus can exist in feces, which could become aerosolized droplets when a toilet is flushed, she worries more about the close contact with other people.

Though the understanding of how the virus spreads is still being studied, she said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is putting more emphasis on it traveling from person-to-person through respiratory droplets.

“High touch surfaces are always still a concern,” she said. “A more significant method of transmission is inhaling the virus that other people are exhaling.”

In a case where someone has to use a public restroom, Prins said they should try to be conscious and minimize their contact as much as possible.

“You have to think a little bit about how are you going to work around the mechanics of the bathroom,” she said.

People should use a paper towel or, if needed, their elbow to turn a faucet on or off or to open a door. She advises against hand dryers because people can accidentally brush their hands against the side.

If someone has to open a door without a towel or glove, she said they could try to open it at the top or bottom of a handle, which fewer people touch, use their non-dominant hand or use only a few fingers to avoid contaminating the entire hand.

Another dense place people are potentially returning to: elevators.

Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health and family medicine at the University of South Florida, said people need to be wary about public spaces where they can’t keep a distance.

She said elevators are a place where masks are critical because there’s no guarantee of distance.

Though scientists are still learning how much masks affect the spread and transmission of coronavirus, she said it’s a good idea to wear one, especially a multi-layered one if possible.

“At the very least it’s at least a barrier to diminish your chances,” she said. “And if you happen to be a carrier you’re doing your part.”

If people do go out in public, Dr. Preeti Malani, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at the University of Michigan, said it’s best to avoid going into dense crowds and getting close to others. She also recommends keeping social circles small instead of having widespread mixing.

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People should also pay attention to the density of a place and how clean it looks, she said.

Malani said she worries less about touching the elevator button and more about getting into a packed space inside. She noted, though, that elevator rides typically aren’t very long, and that scientists think about 10 minutes of close contact is considered high risk for transmission.

She recommends people be as safe as possible in terms of where they go, that they wear masks and that they wash their hands.

“With prevention, everything offers you a little bit,” Malani said. “There’s not one thing, short of just staying home and doing nothing, that prevents it.”

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