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Coronavirus lockdown will end in phases: Here’s where you can go as quarantine lifts in cities


The state and regional coronavirus guidelines are designed to keep public spaces empty and help residents self-isolate.

James Martin/CNET

For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

Weeks after state and local governments first locked down much of the nation to slow the spread of coronavirus, authorities are now looking at how and when to begin easing restrictions to reopen the country without creating a second wave of infections. 

Starting in the middle of March, more than 40 states put tens of millions of US residents under some form of lockdown order, spanning self-quarantine and stay-at-home directives to social distancing and face mask requirements. Now, as the curve of daily cases begins to flatten in some parts of the country, government and public health officials are working on plans for how to return society and the US economy to “normal.” 

Restrictions won’t lift all at once or in the same way across states, and officials may loosen restrictions in stages. For example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom likened reintegration to turning a dimmer switch instead of flipping a light switch. 

Public officials all over the US and the world are embracing a phased approach, from the White House to medical experts at Johns Hopkins University. Here’s how the different reopening phases for your area might look as society slowly opens up.

Phase 1 is happening now: Slow the coronavirus spread

In many parts of the US, this is the phase many residents are living through, with social distancing and stay-at-home orders keeping most people indoors except for essential trips to the store and recreational walks. 

Nonessential businesses and activities such shopping malls, theaters, sporting events, hair salons, barber shops and casinos have been shut down. Businesses that provide essential health and safety services have stayed open, including grocery and hardware stores, pharmacies, hospitals, medical centers, banks and gas stations. 

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Restaurants — and pubs and bars in some states such as New Jersey — are considered essential, but require you to pick up your order or have it delivered instead of sitting down to eat.

While outdoors, residents are required to avoid large groups, practice social distancing and, in some regions, are mandated to wear protective face masks.

Phase 2: Lockdown begins to lift

This is the next phase many states are transitioning into. The US government, working with public health advisers, suggests that quarantine restrictions can begin to ease after:

  • The number of daily cases steadily drops for at least two weeks.
  • Hospitals and medical centers can operate outside of crisis mode to care for all COVID-19 patients.
  • Coronavirus testing becomes widely available for at-risk healthcare workers.

California may be days away from entering this phase, for example, and Georgia has already told businesses they can reopen.

Some states — including New York — could wait for more safeguards, such as widespread testing for anyone with symptoms, to fall into place. Contact tracing could be another big component for some states, to quickly find people who have come into contact with an infected person, and self-isolate.

States are likely to open businesses that are considered low-risk for spread of the virus, such as garden supply stores and construction sites and manufacturing locations. In order to return to work and school, expect physical distancing requirements indoors (for example, keeping desks 6 feet apart) and temperature checks as part of the condition of entering a building or classroom.

The most vulnerable people, including older people and those with underlying conditions, may still be required to shelter in place.

Phase 3: Open more businesses and activities

With dwindling daily cases and more widespread testing, state leaders will seek to reopen higher-risk businesses where customers and workers are in close contact for longer periods of time, such as nail shops and hair salons. Gyms, movie theaters and churches may also open in this phase. 

As states carefully relax restrictions, contact tracing will play an increasingly important role in monitoring the spread of the virus. Contact tracing is a long-accepted tool used by public health officials to identify infected individuals and anyone who may have come in close proximity with the person who tested positive for the disease. To help identify possible new COVID-19 cases, health officials are looking to our mobile phones to build a list of contacts.

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Phase 4: Herd immunity or a vaccine will help restore normalcy

The goal of the first three phases is to get us to a point of community-wide resistance to the coronavirus. One way to achieve that is called herd immunity, which means that 60% or more of the population has been exposed to the coronavirus and have gained some degree of immunity from it. The other approach is through a vaccine, which is still thought to be a year or more away. Once we do have a safe and effective vaccine and therapeutics to protect the population from infection, authorities will be able to fully lift social-distancing orders and bring on a new normalcy.

What about travel bans and restrictions?

Reopening public transit and other methods of mass transportation such as airline and train travel for nonessential trips is an important but potentially higher-risk stage, because passengers are often in close contact for extended periods of time. Domestic airline travel already comes with a set of restrictions, but international vacations aren’t currently encouraged. And in some cases they aren’t even possible, as airlines have cut routes.

States will also look to relaxing interstate travel: Some states, including Hawaii and Rhode Island, require anyone who arrives in the state — resident, visitor or tourist — to self-quarantine for 14 days.

As your state opens up, you’ll still want to take steps to make sure you stay safe. Here’s how to keep the virus out of your home, how to avoid misinformation about the virus and what you need to know about coronavirus treatment. If your state or region is easing its coronavirus restrictions, let us know in a comment.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.

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