The election is almost here, which means it’s time to talk about voting and coronavirus. While many people are planning to vote by mail, millions of people will still vote in person for a variety of reasons. Some states require excuses to vote by mail—and, unfortunately, many don’t consider (very valid) fear of the COVID-19 pandemic an excuse. Even some people who can vote by mail are worried about rampant reports of mail-in voting issues, from ballots addressed to the wrong person to “naked” ballots that officials have to throw out because of technicalities. Some of these ballot issues are already disproportionately affecting Black voters, too.
It’s no wonder that many people are planning to vote in person, even those with seemingly mail-friendly options. But if you’re going to vote in the election during the pandemic, how can you do it safely?
First, know that many polling places are taking precautions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued election safety guidance back in June recommending masks for poll workers, visual cues for social distancing, and regular disinfection. Many states, including Wisconsin, have taken that to heart. “At this point, all poll workers will be wearing masks,” Reid Magney, public information officer for the Wisconsin Elections Commission, tells SELF. The state has also invested in sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, pens for every voter, and tape to mark out a six-foot distance on the ground, he says. “We’re taking this very seriously.”
Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold tells SELF her state has taken similar measures, as well as increasing the number of in-person voting centers for this election season. Both Wisconsin and Colorado have some of the highest voter turnouts in the country.
However, voting accessibility differs across states, and also often across racial and socioeconomic lines. Georgia voters are already reporting waits of more than 10 hours to cast their ballots. There’s an ongoing legal battle in Texas over whether governor Greg Abbott’s move to shut down ballot drop-offs to no more than one per county amounts to voter suppression.
“There is so much noise around this election that it’s really important to find the rules and the guidelines in your state,” Griswold says. “Make sure you make a plan that works for the state.”
Creating a voting plan can be complicated enough even when a deadly and debilitating virus isn’t ravaging the country. In case you’re planning to vote in person this year and are wondering about how to do so safely, read on for insight from Monica Gandhi, M.D., M.P.H., professor of medicine and associate division chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/San Francisco General Hospital. “I’m planning on voting in person as well. It’s an important ritual for me,” Dr. Gandhi says. Here’s what she recommends to keep yourself safe from the coronavirus at the polls. No doubt you’ve heard a lot of this advice before—but that’s because it works.
1. Wear a mask.
“Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus—particularly when used universally within a community setting,” said CDC director Robert R. Redfield, M.D., back in July. That’s true at the polls, too.
“We need to ensure that facial masking is maintained,” Dr. Gandhi says. She also emphasizes that growing evidence suggests masks don’t only protect other people when worn correctly, but they may also protect the wearer. She and two colleagues published an article in the Journal of General Internal Medicine this July explaining that masks can reduce both transmission risk and viral dose, potentially causing milder illness in those who are exposed.
According to the CDC, masks should contain two or more layers, cover both your mouth and nose, and fit snugly over the sides and tops of your face. The air you breathe should be going through the mask, not out the sides. Reserve N95 masks and surgical masks for health care workers. The CDC’s most recent mask selection guidance, last updated on August 27, also recommends avoiding face shields (on their own) and gaiters. At this point, it’s unclear how effective they are.
Keep your mask on whenever it’s humanly possible. If you need to remove it for a sip of water or snack, do so quickly. Special circumstances may occur, too. “Voters might be asked to very briefly lower their mask in order to verify identity because of the state’s voter ID law,” Magney says. But otherwise: Mask up, and get strategic about it. Have a hearty, filling meal beforehand so you may be less likely to need a snack at the polls. Take at least one extra mask in case you need to swap yours out for some reason. Plan to use only your most comfortable masks on election day. If some of your masks make your ears hurt after prolonged wear or cause your glasses to fog up without fail, choose a better option on November 3.
2. Keep at least a six-foot distance from masked voters outside your household.
As with any other time during this pandemic, physical distancing is key on election day.
While experts are still debating just how much space it takes to keep you as safe as possible, Dr. Gandhi says six feet with masks is the standard. Keep in mind that when you’re waiting in line outside of a polling station, the ventilation that comes with being outdoors can help to prevent COVID-19 transmission. When indoors, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can spread farther than six feet thanks to airborne transmission. So think of it as six feet at a minimum, and follow along with whichever cues your polling place has enacted to keep people adequately separated.
3. Stay even farther away from people who aren’t wearing a mask.
While the majority of people are on board with masks, not everyone has taken to mask-wearing, as we’ve seen by now. It will be no different at the polls.
While you can expect most states to strongly encourage or even theoretically require voters to wear masks, in practice, it’s unlikely that poll workers will actually turn people away for not wearing masks. That’s because creating additional barriers for voters presents a legal issue. Magney tells SELF Wisconsin will not be turning away unmasked voters; Secretary Griswold has protocols outlined for election workers on how to handle voters who refuse to wear a mask. So, you might be voting alongside unmasked people.
There are other reasons people may not have their mask on at every moment. If voters are subject to long lines, drinking water or eating a snack may be necessary, which would require temporarily removing a mask. Several eateries have even pledged to provide food to voters this year. Uber Eats will be sending food trucks to several major cities and offering food from partners like Shake Shack; pop-up organizations like Chefs for Polls and Fuel the Polls plan to feed voters and poll workers.
If you’re standing near someone who is not wearing a mask or has pulled down their mask to eat or drink, move farther away than six feet if at all possible, Dr. Gandhi says. “I’d keep more distance, like 10 feet.” And if you’re removing your own mask to eat or drink, move as far away from other people as you can as a courtesy.
Also, if someone is wearing a mask that looks like it has a one-way valve or vent—which doesn’t properly filter the air they’re expelling—Dr. Gandhi says to take even more extreme measures if you can. “I would lose my place in line and go back.”
4. Bring hand sanitizer with you and use it often.
Washing and sanitizing your hands is undoubtedly a good way to minimize how many germs you’re carrying around. However, getting COVID-19 through fomites—as in, touching inanimate objects containing the virus, then infecting yourself by touching your mouth, nose, or eyes—doesn’t seem to be a major pathway to getting sick. A growing body of research suggests that the risk of this kind of transmission is low. “At this point, we’re not considering fomites and surfaces and pens, whatever you’re going to use in the booths, as a way to get COVID-19,” Dr. Gandhi says.
With that said, even though this doesn’t appear to be the main way the virus spreads, you can’t really be too careful when it comes to this disease. Plus, flu season is upon us, and keeping your hands clean is a big way of warding off influenza, too. (But the biggest way is getting your flu vaccine—here are answers to questions you may have about getting the vaccine during this pandemic.)
Bottom line: Don’t worry too much about touching an unclean pen or paper at the polls, but to be on the safe side, use some hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol when you leave and before touching your face while you’re there.