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Doctor: As restrictions loosen, don't assume risk of getting virus is gone

Dr. Adam Berman, seen on Friday, warns that

Dr. Adam Berman, seen on Friday, warns that numbers for the coronavirus will shoot back up if people relax and go back to pre-coronavirus activities. Credit: Danielle Silverman

People crowded on Long Island beaches, groups of friends hanging out without masks on the sidewalks of local downtowns and impromptu street parties outside Manhattan bars are all signs that adherence to COVID-19 precautions is slipping.

Amid such signs of noncompliance with mask and social-distancing regulations, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Thursday said the state would step up enforcement of the rules, allowing the State Liquor Authority to immediately suspend an alcohol license if there are violations and permitting the immediate shutdown of businesses.

“There’s definitely some aspect of fatigue” about wearing masks and social distancing, said Dr. Adam Berman, associate chair of emergency medicine at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park.

Though the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are down dramatically in New York, is it safe to relax and go back to pre-coronavirus activities, as Long Island prepares for Phase 3 of reopening? Cuomo announced Monday that gatherings of up to 25 people would be allowed in Phase 3, which the Island is on track to begin Wednesday.

Berman said the numbers could shoot back up if New Yorkers revert.

“I worry there’s a false sense of security, that things are reopening and people assume that means the risk is gone,” he said. “We know social distancing and wearing masks work, and the reason we got to where we are is because we did those things. But we could just as easily slip back to being in a bad situation by not doing those things, so we still need to continue doing them.”

Quarantining may have been easier when the state’s shutdown began in chilly March, he said. With warm weather, “it’s understandable people want to get out now,” said Berman, who has noticed how in Manhattan’s Central Park, near where he lives, a lot more people are ignoring social distancing and mask rules than a few weeks ago.

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Maralin Merklin-Gray, 55, of Bellmore, has friends who now socialize with family and friends without observing COVID-19 precautions.

But when Merklin-Gray and her husband hosted a Memorial Day barbecue, they kept activities outdoors — where the virus is less likely to be transmitted — and sat at a table about 4 feet apart from each other, less than the recommended 6 feet, but not crowded together.

One of the guests was her husband’s aunt, who at age 80 is at higher risk of a serious illness if she were to contract the virus. Socializing indoors was not an option, she said.

“You’re talking about elderly people, and they’re very susceptible,” Merklin-Gray said.

Still, Merklin-Gray said, even though she, her husband and their 16-year-old son are “conscious of the risk,” they don’t let the virus control their lives.

“We’re not paranoid about it,” she said. “Some people are really upsetting themselves by being so scared.”

Keeping activities outside is a good strategy, said Dr. Patrick O'Shaughnessy, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Catholic Health Services, which runs six Long Island hospitals.

The wind and other air movement disperses the virus, making infection less likely than in confined indoor spaces with poor ventilation, he said.

That doesn’t mean there’s no risk, which is why it’s not a good idea yet to allow crowds at baseball or football games, he said.

There's a greater risk of contracting the virus if you're sitting next to someone for a long time, such as at an outdoor cafe table, than if you're quickly walking past someone, he said. The risk also increases if someone near you sneezes, because of the quantity of virus emitted if the person is infected, he said.

The executive order Cuomo signed requires social distancing at gatherings of 25 or fewer, something O’Shaughnessy said is critical.

Phase 3 also permits indoor dining at up to 50% capacity and tables spaced at least 6 feet apart, and the opening of nail salons, tattoo parlors, tanning salons and other personal care businesses, with restrictions, such as wearing masks and social distancing.

“We have to get out,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We have to meet with people we care about and get our businesses open. But we also have to realize the new normal may be incorporating some of these things [like social distancing and mask-wearing] into our activities of daily living.”

Berman agreed, but acknowledging that not everyone will adhere to recommendations, said, “People who are not going to listen to that advice should still be cognizant of the fact there are things they can do to reduce the risk of transmission, for themselves or others.”

For example, to protect yourself, especially if you’re not practicing social distancing and mask-wearing, avoid being around people who have symptoms of respiratory illness, and to protect others, “You should be really careful of staying away from people who are at high risk,” such as older adults and people with certain underlying health conditions, he said. Many people who carry the virus do not show symptoms.

And even if you are vigilant about social distancing and mask-wearing, your risk isn’t eliminated entirely, O'Shaughnessy said.

“It’s safe to assume that any potential contact has the potential to put you at risk,” he said.

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