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Don't forget social distancing for holiday weekend, experts say

Newsday asked Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious diseases at Northwell Health, for advice on how to safely navigate your Memorial Day traditions in the COVID-19 era.  Credit: Howard Schnapp; James Carbone

Better think twice before running back to the supermarket to pick up that extra package of hot dogs for your Memorial Day barbecue.

Health experts, worried about the spread of COVID-19, are warning Long Islanders to plan carefully before embarking on holiday weekend activities such as shopping, taking a dip in a neighbor’s pool and heading to the beach.

They fear people who have been cooped up for months during the pandemic might be a little too eager to party this weekend and forget vital social distancing rules.

“It’s critically important for people to realize that Memorial Day could be a wonderful commemorative day or it could unfortunately be the day that we recur and go back if we aren’t careful,” said Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chairman of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital.

A Dip in the Pool?

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer and the time when many homeowners open their pools.

A backyard pool is still a good way for families to cool off and get some exercise but probably not an activity to be shared with other people.

“I am less concerned about there being coronavirus in ocean water, lakes and swimming pools than I am about social distancing practices at those locations,” said Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatrician and senior medical adviser at PM Pediatrics. “You have kids coughing and spewing out respiratory droplets as they come up out of the water. It’s very difficult to keep social distancing in a swimming pool.”

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Catching Rays at the Beach

Local beaches will be slashing capacity to limit the number of sun worshippers spreading blankets and chairs in the sand.

Doctors advise beachgoers to wear masks as much as possible and make sure they are far from other people.

“I worry about the beaches being very crowded,” said Dr. Bruce Farber, chief of infectious disease at North Shore University Hospital and Long Island Jewish Medical Center. “I can see taking walks in the sand and along the water but laying next to somebody close by on a blanket — no way would I do that.”

Officials have said they would require social distancing at the beaches.

“You really should stay at least 10 feet away because people aren’t going to take out measuring sticks,” Glatt said. “Six feet becomes four feet very quickly.”

And Nassau, Suffolk and New York City residents should think twice before taking the LIRR to an Island beach this weekend.

At a news conference at Jamaica Station on Thursday, LIRR president Phillip Eng reminded customers that the Long Island Rail Road was still operating on a reduced schedule aimed at transporting essential workers — not beachgoers.

“If you’re not an essential worker, you should be looking for alternative travel plans,” Eng said.

Thousands of riders usually take the LIRR to reach seaside destinations on Memorial Day weekend. Eng noted that the railroad carried an extra 1,700 people to Long Beach last year.

With New York City beaches remaining closed, some city residents could be tempted to take a train to Long Island in search of fun in the sun. But with service reduced, and the railroad promoting social distancing on trains to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Eng urged the public to stay off LIRR trains.

Hosting a backyard BBQ

Grilling chicken, hot dogs and hamburgers is a beloved Memorial Day tradition. Sharing it with a group of friends could be a risky proposition.

“I’m really encouraging people to shift their thinking because we are not going to eliminate risk but we have to do what we can to minimize risk,” Johns said. “We can’t live in a total bubble the rest of our lives.”

Barbecues should be small, held outdoors with just a few people and you should be certain they are not sick or have not been exposed to anyone who was sick, she said.

“It’s still unwise to have big parties and big get-togethers,” Johns said.

Heeding the Call of Nature

Public bathrooms, whether they are in a store or on the beach, should be avoided if at all possible, doctors said.

“They are a potential hotbed of transmission and they are not being cleaned after every use,” Glatt said. “Try to use the bathroom before you go somewhere but if you have to, try not to touch your face and wash your hands really well or use hand sanitizer. Wear your mask to the bathroom.”

Running to the store

While most Long Island retail stores are closed, supermarkets and big box stores remain open. That doesn’t mean you should run to the store every time you run out of ketchup, experts said.

“I think the supermarkets have done a great job,” Farber said. “They are really being careful and everyone is doing the right things … but it’s always better to limit your trips.”

Glatt said simple precautions could make a big difference.

“I encourage people to get out and get fresh air,” he said. “It’s good for you physically and it’s good for you emotionally.”

With Alfonso Castillo

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