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Toughest jobs for keeping your (social) distance

Cities struggle with social distancing

Health experts agree that keeping people apart, or "social distancing," during the coronavirus pandemic is essential for bringing the outbreak under control. But good luck with that when your job is to cut someone's hair, lead a patient through physical therapy or perform other work that makes it hard to keep the recommended six-foot buffer from others.

Take the more than 1 million Americans who work as barbers, hairstylists and cosmetologists. They rank highest on the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis's "proximity index," which measures how much physical contact certain jobs require.

"There is just no way you can be socially distant with this,"said Carol Rosenberg, a hairstylist at the Oscar Blandi salon on tony Madison Avenue in Manhattan that is temporarily closed after New York state ordered non-essential businesses to shut their doors. "You are on top of somebody, and I think they made the right call to close it down for now." 

Rosenberg said she brought her scissors and client book home with her in case she's called on to make house visits. For now, she isn't working remotely. "Even if people want house calls, I don't feel like it's the socially responsible thing to do."

Of more than 100 occupations included in a U.S. Labor Department index that defines occupations by skills, knowledge and other criteria, 15 were deemed contact-intensive, according to the St. Louis Fed. Other contact-intensive occupations include: 

  • Occupational/physical therapist assistants and aides
  • Home health and personal care aides; nursing assistants; orderlies; psychiatric aides
  • Therapists, veterinarians, nurses, midwives, audiologists
  • Supervisors of food preparation and serving workers
  • Health care diagnosing or treating practitioners
  • Supervisors of personal care and service workers
  • Health technologists and technicians
  • Pilots, air traffic controllers and flight attendants
  • Other health care support occupations
  • Preschool, elementary, middle, secondary and special education teachers
  • Other teachers and instructors
  • Motor vehicle operators
  • Other personal care and service workers

Employer flexibility and being able to work remotely can help ease the shock to people's income as well as maintain key services, experts say. For example, physical therapy offices and workout studios are offering virtual sessions, while restaurants closed to dine-in patrons are shifting to takeout and delivery orders. 

Johns Hopkins health security director on coronavirus in the U.S. and social distancing

Deanie Barth, a physical therapist and the co-owner of Centurion Physical Therapy in midtown Manhattan, is serving as many of her regular patients as she can using teleconferencing software. While that doesn't allow for the kind of hand's-on service therapists typically provide, she is teaching clients techniques they can use themselves. 

"We send them links to equipment that might be good for them, and some have also resorted to using rolling pins to do soft tissue work on themselves," Barth told CBS MoneyWatch. "It's almost like a very meticulous training session that's geared more toward injuries."

She is also prescribing mobilization and strengthening exercises patients can do at home. "It's kind of strange," she noted. "In some ways I feel more connected than when we are doing a session in-person."

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