Millions of American are heading to the polls today to exercise their cherished right to cast a ballot.
Standing in a slow-moving queue at a polling center certainly raises your risk of catching Covid-19, especially when there is no guarantee the people around you will be wearing masks.
A CNN investigation found most states with mask mandates won't force voters to cover their faces while they cast their ballots.
Nor will people isolating due to a positive test for Covid-19 -- or quarantining because they have been exposed -- be precluded "from exercising their right to vote," a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson told CNN on Monday.
"When possible, alternative voting options -- which minimize contact between voters and poll workers -- should be made available for people with Covid-19, those who have symptoms of Covid-19, and those who have been exposed," the spokesperson said.
Having a plan to reduce your risk before you set out for that marathon wait is critical. Here's your cheat sheet to a safer voting experience.
1. Spend most of your wait outdoors
Standing outdoors is definitely safer than indoors because any airflow helps dissipate the virus. So try to find a voting location that keeps indoor waits to a minimum.
"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," said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Emory University in Atlanta, in a prior interview.
"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," she said.
The safest locations will be large sites with good ventilation, such as 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.
If you're disabled, not feeling well or at extremely high risk of severe complications from Covid-19, you may be able to take advantage of curbside voting in some states. If you are lucky enough to have that option, be sure the election workers are wearing gloves, a face shield and a face mask before you lower your window.
2. Vote at a less busy time of day
Traditionally, people are most likely to try and vote before or after work or at lunch time. If you can aim for midmorning or early to midafternoon, you may encounter fewer lines.
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 you can use to plan your trip.
- Tip: Make a list of several local polling stations and do a drive-by to check out the line before parking.
3. Avoid crowded ride-sharing services, buses or trains
If you can't drive, don't compromise your safety by using ride-sharing or crowded buses or trains, says the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If possible, opt for public or private services that will pick you up individually.
"Older people or people with disabilities may be able to get help with getting to their voting place," the CDC writes. "Check if in your area private carpool companies, volunteer organizations or your city public transportation offer these services."
Try to avoid touching items inside the car or transport as much as you can, and use hand sanitizer if you do, the CDC adds. If possible, open all available windows.
- Tip: Since a long wait in line is likely, be sure to bring water and possibly a folding chair.
4. Carefully choose your mask
Be picky about your mask. Don't wear anything you can hold up and see through. In fact, studies have shown that cotton masks with two or three layers of fabric are more protective than single-ply masks or bandanas. A recent study found bandanas and gaiter masks to be least effective in protection.
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," Sexton said, adding that they 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."
If you must take your mask off for some reason -- such as to take a drink of water -- use hand sanitizer before and after, the CDC says, and bring an extra mask in case the first gets wet or dirty.
5. 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 most likely to enter as you take a breath through your nose.
If your mask is reusable, be sure to toss it into the washer when you get home for a thorough cleaning before wearing it again.
6. Follow social distancing rules
Standing at least 6 feet apart is fast becoming the norm today -- or should be -- to help protect ourselves and others from the virus. That's especially critical if people around you are not wearing masks.
While some people cannot wear a mask due to a disability, others are choosing not to as a political or personal statement. Regardless of the reason, don't respond with words or actions if a person without a mask violates the 6-foot social distancing guidance, advises Hannah Klain, an Equal Justice Works fellow in the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City.
"If that person refuses to keep their distance, you may want to let a poll worker know and ask the poll worker to politely remind the voter to try to maintain social distancing," she said.
"Voters should not take matters into their own hands and approach an individual who isn't taking safety precautions at the polling place," Klain said. "Instead, the voter should speak to a poll worker about the disruption or notify Election Protection by calling 866-OUR-VOTE."
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," she added.
7. Bring sanitizer
Along with that highly protective mask, you should definitely bring disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer with greater than 60% ethanol or 70% isopropyl alcohol, according to the CDC. That's the level needed to kill most coronaviruses.
Don't be fooled by the "99.9%" effective marketing language you may see on the bottle. Instead, check the ingredients for alcohol levels or look for the US Food and Drug Administration's "Drug Facts" label. You can also check out the FDA list of approved disinfectants.
- Tip: Don't use any hand sanitizer that's been stored in the car during the summer or left in the sun, the FDA says. Effectiveness will start to breakdown above 105°F.
When you get home, be sure and wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds -- that's the amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice (although there are a lot of other songs you can substitute). Soapy bubbles break down the fatty surface of the coronavirus, thus killing it.
8. Bring your own pen or swab
The CDC also suggests bringing your own blue or black pen in case you need to sign something or decide to fill out your absentee ballot and drop it there. You must use blue or black ink for your vote to be counted.
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).
9. 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.
Be sure to ask any babysitter who stays with your children to wear a mask if they don't live with you, the CDC advises.
10. Review your plan
If you need to fill out registration materials, do that in advance, the CDC says, and bring prepared items with you. To speed up voting and reduce your time inside, If your state has sample ballots, fill that out and take it with you, or make a list.
Are you ready? Double-check with this quick recap:
- Personal identification, such as driver's license
- Registration forms and sample ballot
- Two masks
- Sanitizing wipes or tissues
- Hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol
- Black or blue ink pen
- Cotton swab or glove