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'A little piece of normal’: With Maryland creaking open, families left to navigate how far to venture out

Families venture out on May 19, 2020 to walk and shop at Annapolis' city dock during phase 1 of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic.

Weeks went by with Cyhl Quarles mostly home in Odenton. No visits to the zoo with his boys, no Friday dinners out with his wife, not even a trip to his barber. So when travel restrictions finally loosened, Quarles was calling to book his appointment.

“Do you really have to get your hair cut?” his wife, Ashley, asked. “Can’t it wait?”

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Three months into the deadly coronavirus outbreak, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has eased his lockdown to “safer-at-home,” ushering in yet another unfamiliar environment for Maryland families: a state not entirely open, not entirely closed.

Hogan’s order, which went into effect last Friday, marks not a return to normalcy, but a step to get there. Whereas state officials had banned most trips out, now it’s up to families such as the Quarleses to decide how far to go.

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They ventured forth one recent afternoon for Oreo ice cream at Annapolis City Dock. When they were apart from the crowd, their face masks were not worn, but close at hand.

For a lot of activities, particularly those outdoors, there is a gray area. With warmer weather, more families are heading out — and deciding for themselves what’s safe.

Experts have some advice: Outside is safer than inside, small groups are safer than large ones, 6 feet of distance is a must and no one should be sharing food, toys or other things. Wear a mask indoors or outside if you will be close to others.

“While the state has met the conditions for taking very careful early steps toward reopening, people should realize there is still virus circulating in the state with hundreds of new cases of COVID still being diagnosed every day in the state,” Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said via email.

He advised avoiding parties, church and other larger gatherings, as well as visits to elderly relatives or those with underlying health conditions.

Indeed, state health officials counted nearly 1,800 new cases Tuesday, the biggest single-day increase since the virus reached Maryland. In three months, the coronavirus has infected more than 42,000 people in the state and killed more than 2,000. About half of the people killed lived in nursing homes. Health officials are, however, encouraged by declines in the rate of cases that require hospitalization.

The glimmer of hope has left Lori J. Dodson of Annapolis wanting to resume travels. She too reached for the phone when Hogan lifted his stay-at-home order.

“The first thing I did was call Rehoboth Beach and see if I can schedule a vacation,” Dodson said.

Delaware has reported less than a quarter of the coronavirus cases that Maryland has. In the Delaware beach town of Rehoboth, restaurants may open indoor seating next month at 30% of an establishment’s capacity. In Baltimore City, meanwhile, restaurant seating remains prohibited.

Tiffany Duncan drove 10 hours from Georgia to visit her younger sister in Baltimore last week. Duncan was determined to celebrate her sister’s 31st birthday, even if they simply stayed in. Hogan’s order was a welcome surprise. With the city still closed, she called around for someplace open in the suburbs and settled on miniature golf and racing at the Go-Kart Track in White Marsh.

“The owner, he wiped down all the cars. Everyone had their masks on," Duncan said. “I wasn’t nervous.”

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The rules differ from White Marsh to Baltimore, or from Maryland to Delaware. This inconsistency — and the responsibility of making personal judgment calls — can stress out people already on edge from having been isolated for weeks, says Vaile Wright, a clinical psychologist and director of clinical research and quality at the American Psychological Association.

“We are social creatures, we like predictability and don’t like uncertainty, and we want to go back to our normal lives,” she said. “At the same time, we recognize that we need to stay safe. What is safe? There is a lot of uncertainty.”

Wright said the level of stress and anxiety is different for different people because of their tolerance and other factors, such as whether they have lost a job or a loved one, are trying to work at home while educating a child or work on the front lines. Everyone has lost routines big and small, like seeing the same coffee barista or fellow commuter on the bus.

She said going outside to do “normal things” helps people mentally, though everyone has to assess what is safe for them when there is a gray area such as whether to wear a mask while running or to let children play near one another.

“The challenge for all of us is to identify reliable sources of information and make a personal risk assessment,” she said. “What are you prepared to do and not prepared to do based on your own health history? What is happening in your locale, and how much exposure you are getting. It’s also important to know your local ordinances. ... If you know the rules, it makes it easier to follow. But it can be a challenge to get information when the rules are fluid.”

Dayjai Sanchez felt safe enough to bring her family from North Baltimore for an afternoon outdoors at the Annapolis dock. Unlike the others, she did not want to remove her face mask, not even for an ice cream cone.

She has an underlying condition of heart arrhythmia and worries: What if she were to contract the virus?

“I’m very cautious. Very nervous. Still not feeling comfortable with going into businesses,” she said.

Baruch Fischhoff, a risk analyst at Carnegie Mellon University, said before venturing out it may help to think the way he does. Organize the swirling facts and claims in your head by asking three questions:

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  • How much disease is there where I want to go, such as a doctor’s office, a park, a bus or workplace?
  • How intensely will I be exposed to it according to how long I’m there, how close people will be and how well it’s cleaned and ventilated?
  • How well can I control the risk if I am exposed by washing hands or wearing a mask?

“Reducing risk at each stage reduces overall risk,” he said.

He also said to consider only trusted sources of information such as news stories that explain the science rather than social media or pundits. Understand people’s bias when listening or discussing a plan.

“Ignoring the rest makes life much easier,” Fischhoff said. “Good evidence changes slowly, so one doesn’t even need to check these sources all that often.”

Seeking out and using information may be key to not only safety, but also a sense of well-being during the coronavirus pandemic, according to research from the Johns Hopkins University.

People in China who said they felt knowledgeable about the virus were more likely to have a positive emotional state than those who didn’t feel informed, said Haiyang Yang, a Johns Hopkins Carey Business School assistant professor.

Similarly, misinformation can increase someone’s risk of infection, Yang said. So reliable information matters.

“Perceiving that one is knowledgeable about how to effectively prevent infection can lead to a stronger sense of control, which in turn can help protect emotional well-being,” he said.

As Marylanders emerge from lockdown, they are looking to buoy their spirits in ways big and small, whether by a beach vacation or day at the docks. The Quarles family’s afternoon in Annapolis was their first time out together in months.

They found a sky gray and overcast, ready to rain. Wind swirled about them and pushed laps of water over the dock. The weather was better suited for the ducks, but Cyhl Quarles and his boys were not ready to leave.

“It feels great,” he said, beaming. “It’s a little piece of normal."

Baltimore Sun reporter Colin Campbell contributed to this article.

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