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How to use services like Uber and Airbnb with social distancing in mind

(Illustration by Enisauraus for The Washington Post)

As the pandemic wears on with no end in sight, Americans are learning to live as safely as possible while the threat of coronavirus remains. A basic piece of advice from health experts is to practice social distancing. But when we’re told to stay six feet away from others, how do we navigate the peer-to-peer transactions of the sharing economy?

“What we’re asking people to do is to really be intentional about what’s essential, what’s nonessential. Really think about, to the extent possible, can they achieve social distancing?” says Nasia Safdar, the medical director of infection control at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics. “It may not be possible in every instance and every time, but people should at least be thinking about it.”

When sharing-economy apps prove essential, here’s how to use them with the safety of yourself and others in mind.

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Ride-hailing, such as Uber, and rental cars

Ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft claim to be closely monitoring the coronavirus situation and taking steps to educate their riders and employees about the virus. For example, Lyft said on its website that it has distributed 160,000 sanitizing products and face coverings to its drivers, and the company requires riders and drivers to wear a mask.

Those measures aside, Alvin Tran, an assistant professor of public health at the University of New Haven School of Health Sciences in Connecticut, says people should use ride-hailing services only when absolutely necessary.

“I have not used Uber or Lyft since the start of a pandemic, mostly because I don’t know if the driver has been cleaning the car or if the driver has a negative test or not,” says Tran, who teaches a course about pandemics and public health threats. “It’s still a risk in my mind, and that concern has not relaxed.”

However, not everyone has the luxury of avoiding ride-hailing services. Special pathogens expert Syra Madad, who was recently featured in the Netflix docuseries “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak,” says if people do use these services, they should take a layered approach to harm reduction.

“We know that ventilation is very important," Madad says, recommending passengers and drivers wear masks and open car windows when possible. That will help “if there’s any virus particles. It’s more diluted and you’re exposed to less viral particles," she says.

After your ride, follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for proper hand-washing, which Safdar says is the main way to prevent illness if you take an Uber or Lyft.

For rental cars — reserved peer-to-peer or the traditional way — Safdar recommends disinfecting any surfaces you will be touching, such as the seats and the steering wheel, before driving.

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Home-sharing, such as Airbnb

Before you go ahead with your house-sharing reservation, check the travel restrictions at the booking’s destination. The Airbnb website has a page dedicated to coronavirus resources for hosts and guests, including links to travel advisories and local governments’ coronavirus information.

Madad says it is also a good idea to check how hospitals in the area are handling the pandemic. “You don’t want to think about these things, but it’s important because this is your health on the line,” she says. “God forbid you do contract covid-19 and you do need hospitalization — if hospitals in that area are overwhelmed, you’re not going to get the care that you may need.” She says the CDC and city or state government health websites can be resources for checking on the status of a city’s hospitals.

If you decide to check into your Airbnb as scheduled, Safdar recommends wiping down common surfaces with disinfecting wipes and assessing whether the place has been properly cleaned.

“I wouldn’t be overly concerned about the environment [of an Airbnb] unless you see obvious evidence that it hasn’t been cleaned first,” she says.

Consider cleaning the other items you have brought into the rental. Safdar says that even independent of this pandemic, we should be disinfecting everyday objects that are usually overlooked, such as our phones, computers and apparel (e.g., winter coats).

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Public scooters and bikes, such as Bird

Biking or taking a scooter can be a good alternative to ride-hailing, since you will not have to worry about social distancing from a driver.

Be mindful that scooter- or bike-sharing services have been touched by many others, so clean parts of the equipment you will touch before starting your trip.

“I would say wipe down the handlebars and the seat,” Safdar says.

Once you have reached your final destination, wash your hands.

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Food and goods delivery, such as Postmates

Safdar says that as long as food is cooked and covered, you shouldn’t be concerned about your takeout.

As for accepting the delivery itself, you should clean cutlery before use and wash your hands before and after eating.

And just as Safdar recommends wiping down “high-touch” surfaces of your rented Airbnb or scooter, you should wipe down the outside of your delivery bag before opening it. Although it’s very unlikely you will contract the coronavirus from touching a delivered package, experts say there’s never “zero risk."

Safdar says it is not necessary to have food deliveries left outside your door unless you are concerned about your own health status. If you’re self-quarantining because you may have been exposed to the virus or are sick, then it’s in the best interest of the delivery person to avoid all contact.

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