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Is in-person voting safe from COVID-19? It can be if you follow these guidelines

And we’re off!

In-person voting has officially started in some parts of the United States for the November 2020 election, with at least 10 states allowing residents to begin casting their votes in September.

Alabama was first out of the gate, allowing voters to cast an absentee ballot in person as of September 9. Pennsylvania followed on September 14, and Minnesota, South Dakota, Virginia and Wyoming started on September 18.

Delaware, Vermont, Illinois and Michigan round out the September calendar. In October, voters in at least 35 states and DC can begin voting early or absentee in-person.

Voting in person is a cherished right for many Americans — and for people concerned that their ballot might be lost in the mail, delivering their mail-in or absentee ballot may be their preferred option this year.

Standing in long lines at the polling center with people who may or may not be wearing masks, often inside buildings without good ventilation, certainly raises your risk of catching COVID-19.

But there are things you can do to reduce risk if you vote in person.

Check your polling station

What’s the level of protection that will be in place at your assigned polling station? You should know in advance, for example:

  • If you’ll be spending the majority of your wait standing outside
  • If masks are required of both voters and poll workers
  • If 6-feet spacing markers will be visible on floors to control social distancing
  • If there is a separate entrance and exit from the voting area
  • If there will be a Plexiglas barrier between the voter and the poll worker
  • If poll workers will be wearing face shields, surgical face masks and gloves
  • If there will be adequate space between voting privacy booths
  • If poll workers will sanitize frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles, voting booths and bathrooms regularly

“Talk to your local government about your local polling place and what they’ve thought through about safety,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University in Atlanta. “Some of these things can be rectified by limiting the number of people who come indoors at any one point in time, and really spacing out stations and spacing out the line, and then making sure that everybody is masked.”

“Outdoors is just dramatically safer than indoors because of the airflow,” said Sexton.

You also want to vote at a location that has a separate point of entry and exit to minimize crowds forming in the space. Any time spent indoors should be minimized. “My polling place historically ends up with a two-way line sneaking up and down a large enclosed hallway, which is not something that you would want to do right now,” she added.

The safest locations will be school gymnasiums, community recreation centers, convention centers and large parking lots, according to the Brennan Center and the Infectious Diseases Society of America guidelines.

  • Tip: Do not vote in person if your polling station is located at a high-risk facility, such as a senior care facility.

Some districts plan to offer curbside voting, especially for those who are not feeling well or who are at extremely high risk, according to Hannah Klain, an Equal Justice Works fellow in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City.

“If election workers are doing curbside voting, we would want them to have additional PPE like gloves, a face shield and a face mask,” Klain said.

Vote at less busy times of the day

Even though people are still working from home, most people are likely to vote before or after work or at lunch time. If you can aim for mid-morning or early to mid-afternoon, you may encounter fewer lines.

You may also encounter fewer people if you vote early in the window of opportunity your state provides for early voting.

Stay in touch with local friends on Facebook or a neighborhood site like Nextdoor. People will often post updates about crowds at different times of the day, which can be used to plan your trip.

Carefully choose your mask

Be picky about your mask. Studies have shown that cotton masks with two or three layers of fabric are more protective than single-ply masks or bandanas. In fact, a recent study found bandanas and gaiter masks to be least effective in protection.

“You don’t want a mask that when you hold it up you can see your hand on the other side of it,” Sexton said. “If you use a filter in your mask, be sure to change it regularly because it can clog. You can tell if it gives you a sensation that’s a little harder to breathe.”

Be especially wary of the look-alike N95 type masks being sold at major retail distributors, Sexton said.

“Some of those N95-masks have exhalation valves in them,” she said. “They do make them more comfortable to wear, but you’re not protecting the people around you — it’s putting your airflow right out in the environment.

“It may actually make things worse because it concentrates your breath into that valve, allowing it to come through with some force and the droplets may travel a little farther. So we strongly recommend that people don’t wear a mask that has an exhalation valve.”

Cover your nose, please

It’s not safe to stand in line with your snout exposed even if your mouth is covered, experts say.

That’s because wearing a mask over the mouth but leaving the nose exposed defeats the purpose of a mask, studies have shown. Since the vast majority of us are not mouth breathers, the virus is mostly likely to enter as you take a breath through your nose.

Vote alone

Unless you have a disability that requires assistance, vote alone, experts say. This is not the year to bring your children or other non-voting family members to the voting location.

“I remember going with my parents to vote, but this year that’s probably not the best idea. We want to really minimize the number of unnecessary people at the polling place,” Klain said.

Come prepared

Along with that highly protective mask, you should definitely bring tissues and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol or disinfecting wipes, the CDC says.

“It may be helpful to bring your own pen, too, because sometimes you have to sign the voter card or mark a paper ballot,” Sexton said.

If you and others are following the 6-foot rule, the most likely interpersonal contact during voting is between the voter and the polling workers checking you in.

“Ideally there’d be a Plexiglas barrier, and in states where voters have to provide ID, they’d be able to just show their ID through the Plexiglas barrier,” Klain said. “Minimizing the number of shared items that voters touch and election workers touch is really critical.”

If your voting station has touch-screen voting, you should bring along a cotton swab, finger cover or glove to cast your vote instead of using your finger. Be sure to immediately discard those aids (peel the glove off from your wrist inside out to avoid cross-contamination).

Have a plan

“There is a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around this election, and that is a wonderful thing,” Klain said. “But no one should feel caught unawares by the election that’s coming, and the best way is to make a plan.”

If you’re going to vote by mail, request your mail ballot as early as possible, Klain suggested, and return it as early as possible.

If you choose to vote or deliver your absentee ballot in person, consider voting as soon as early voting in your state begins, she added.

“The longer you wait, the longer the early voting lines will be,” Klain said.

“And if you’re going to vote in person on Election Day, wear personal protection and take any steps you can to keep not only yourself safe, but keep the election workers who are sacrificing their time and bodies for the sake of the election safe as well,” she said.

Coronavirus Coverage / Health



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