Since the federal stay-at-home order was allowed to expire on April 30, a growing number of state and local governments have moved to allow reopening business' doors (with capacity limits in place), while phasing out some of the restrictions that have largely kept Americans in their homes since March.
Decisions about how and when to lift restrictions on businesses deemed non-essential, social gatherings, shopping, religious services and other aspects of daily life have been left completely up to the states, resulting in a hodgepodge patchwork of regulations from coast to coast.
Some states, such as North Carolina, are allowing some businesses to open while others stay closed. Some states, including Nebraska, are allowing restrictions to expire in some areas while not in others. Wisconsin and others, have "safer at home" regulations in place until the end of May. And in some areas, such as in parts of Georgia, local governments are maintaining restrictions that have been lifted at the state level. And in Rhode Island, the stay-at-home order ends this weekend.
Meanwhile, it's important to note that the daily number of cases and deaths in the U.S. continues to climb. This pandemic is far from over.
All this has left people left wondering what's "reopen," what's "okay" and what's not—especially families, on whom the financial and emotional impacts of shutdowns, school closures and social distancing have taken a particularly heavy toll. American families are facing an unprecedented childcare crisis. One in 5 American households with young children don't have enough food. Kids are out of school until the fall in almost all states. And yes, the kids (and grownups) are all bored with no one to socialize with.
Here are answers to parents' most-asked questions about what "reopening" really means.
Are playdates okay now?
Officially, no. Most states are still advising people to practice social distancing as a way to slow the spread of disease, referring individuals to the CDC's guidelines. Those guidelines are pretty straightforward—and disappointing—when it comes to playdates:
"Limit time with other children...The key to slowing the spread of COVID-19 is to limit contact as much as possible. While school is out, children should not have in-person playdates with children from other households. If children are playing outside their own homes, it is essential that they remain 6 feet from anyone who is not in their own household."
In areas where social distancing regulations have become less strict, many families are already quietly arranging playdates with masks or with limited personal contact. (Actually, this is the case even in areas where local authorities suggest maintaining strict social distancing measures—looking at you, my home neighborhood in Brooklyn.)
While we're all stir-crazy and anxious to return to normal, social distancing practices remain the best way to contain the outbreak, according to health experts, at least until a vaccine is developed.
Should children still wear masks?
According to CDC guidelines, children under two should not wear masks. Children over the age of two (and adults, of course) should still wear cloth masks whenever they are in "a community setting," in other words, anyplace there might be other people around, whether that's a grocery store, a park or a neighborhood sidewalk. The guidelines go on to say that masks should be worn in public even if you're keeping 6 feet of distance between yourself and others.
Some local governments, in municipalities from New York City to Birmingham, Alabama, have passed ordinances that actually require wearing masks in public places, although not all these local ordinances apply equally to children and adults. And most states—even the ones that are reopening businesses and phasing out restrictions against large gatherings—are still recommending masks and social distancing.
So, the general recommendation for now remains: Masks on, anywhere there are other people outside the family, even if you're six feet apart. And of course that goes double in areas where masks in public are actually the law.
Do we need to wear masks while we're playing outside?
In some ways, the answer to this depends less on where you live and more on where you're playing. If your kids are playing in your yard or in an area where there are no other people around, masks are not needed.
In public parks, beaches or other public recreation spots, masks are recommended as part of social distancing measures intended to slow the spread of the virus. And in some areas, masks are required by law whenever you are out in public.
Can I see my friends or family if we stay 6 feet apart?
Here's where things get complicated. Even in states that are reopening their economies and public spaces, individuals are largely asked to follow the CDC's social distancing recommendations to help contain the spread of the disease—and again, those recommendations are pretty straightforward: Please don't hang out with other people, and when you do go out, wear a mask and maintain six feet of separation.
In Indiana, for example, "Hoosiers are still encouraged to continue wearing face masks in public and to maintain social distancing," but meanwhile, state Governor Eric Holcomb has announced a phased plan for retailers, restaurants and religious services to reopen at half capacity. Tennessee's reopening plans from Governor Bill Lee strongly recommend that people "stay at home whenever possible," while reopening restaurants and retail stores at half capacity.
What this contradiction means in practice is confusing at best and sort of heartless at worst: Why is it okay for me to interact with the server at a restaurant or the cashier at a store #becausetheeconomy, but it's still not recommended for us to see my kids' grandmother?
Without straightforward or consistent guidance at either the local or national level, families are left to interpret social distancing guidelines as best they can, for their particular situation.
Especially with older or immunocompromised family members, you'll want to observe social distancing guidelines as closely as possible, even when strict social distancing measures are replaced by what some states, such as Pennsylvania, are calling "aggressive mitigation" in their reopening plans.
In many states, gathering in groups larger than 10 people is considered a violation of local ordinances or public health advisories—so make sure you're familiar with what your local authorities allow. USA Today, the New York Times, the Kaiser Foundation and the Wall Street Journal are maintaining detailed lists of reopening regulations by state with links, although you may need to drill down further to find the regulations that apply in your specific area.
Can I send my child back to childcare or day care now?
In many areas, the answer to this all-important question is a heartbreaking no for working parents. Recent reports suggest that 60% of childcare providers across the country are currently closed, either because of state or local mandates, or due to low attendance and enrollment.
The Hunt Institute, a nonprofit education policy research organization, maintains a detailed list of childcare closings, reopenings and regulations by state. As of the first week of May, childcare facilities in about one-third of states (including Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts and Maryland, as well as New York City) remain closed, with the option to provide care just for children of emergency and essential workers, at a capacity of no more than 10-12 children. Childcare providers in most other states have the "option to remain open" but under capacity restrictions and with strict regulations in place regarding cleaning, staffing and physical distancing.
What this has meant in practice for many day cares—already operating on a razor-thin margin—is that they cannot reopen, or that they face significant financial challenges in reopening after an extended closure. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has reported that 30% of childcare providers are operating on budgets so lean that a closure of more than 2 weeks would mean shutting their doors permanently, and an additional 16% would not survive longer than a month.
Childcare providers across the country are struggling. And parents now face an impossible choice: Continue to pay tuition while not getting childcare, or risk the possibility that their day care might not reopen at all. It has been estimated that the pandemic may result in the permanent loss of 4.5 million childcare slots across the country.
What if your neighbors or friends aren't taking social distancing seriously right now?
If, despite everything, it seems like everybody you know is scheduling secret playdates and heading to the park without masks on, you're probably not imagining things. We're two months into the greatest change in American public life in decades, and people are definitely bending "the rules," out of need or desperation or boredom or all three.
311 operators in New York City have reported over 14,000 complaints about social distancing violations in recent weeks, which are punishable by fines up to $1000. It's worth noting, too, that enforcement of social distancing guidelines and ordinances is unevenly applied. In some communities of color, authorities have responded to reports of social distancing violations with what legal experts say may be excessive force. Keeping people safe isn't an excuse to let racism or intolerance win.
We're all trying our best to be good citizens and keep ourselves and our families safe. But despite our concerns for our loved ones and our country, the fact is, taking on the task of monitoring and enforcing "the rules" for others is only going to add to your stress, not relieve it. Now may be a good time to focus on controlling what you can control—that is, your own actions and your own feelings—and letting go of what you can't.
Stay safe. We'll get through this.