How To Vote In-Person As Safely As Possible During A Pandemic

Nov 2, 2020

Poll worker Paul Dascani will be spending Election Day at St. Rosalia’s, a nearly 100-year-old Catholic church in Pittsburgh’s Greenfield neighborhood. He decided to volunteer this year because of COVID-19.

“Historically, many poll workers are seniors,” he said. “Given the pandemic, some of them at least stayed home and didn’t want to go do this. I figured, well, I’m young and able, so I should.”

Any coronavirus exposure risk people face while voting at St. Rosalia’s will likely be far greater for the 31-year-old Dascani who is spending 14 hours inside the polling station.

“I’ve studied the data, and my age and risk group it’s very low,” he said. “If I get it, I’m probably going to be fine.”

There are more than 940,000 registered voters in Allegheny County, though not all are in their early 30s and healthy.

“I think it’s really important to consider the space in which people are voting,” said University of Pittsburgh microbiologist Seema Lakdawala, who is an expert on the transmission of influenza viruses.

Lakdawala said it’s hard to know how safe it is to vote in-person because different spaces pose different levels of risk with the coronavirus.

“Is it in an old building that has poor ventilation? So how long will you be in that space? How many other people are going to be in that space at a given time?” she said.

Scientists don’t know how environmental factors affect how long the virus remains viable, which makes it hard to calculate risk. Lakdawala recommends wearing additional protection while voting.

“Maybe having a secondary barrier like a face shield on top of that mask,” she said. “Or some sort of eye protection in case there are individuals who are also voting who are not wearing masks.”

She said wearing two cloth masks is also an option.

County officials suggest people bring their own black or blue pen, and to vote as quickly as possible.

“Don’t linger. Go in. Cast your ballot. And go,” said Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, at a recent press conference.

Voting when fewer people are at a polling precinct will also mitigate the risk of exposure. Fitzgerald said there’s usually a rush before 9 a.m., and then a lull before things get busy around 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening.

“If you can go in the middle of the day, at 10 in the morning or two in the afternoon--you know going into a poll place isn’t any different than going into a grocery store, or a gym," he said.

The advice for out-of-home activities holds true: stay at least six feet away from others, wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and wear a well-fitting mask. County health officials say if everyone follows these simple instructions, Election Day will be safe.

At a stop last week at the Allegheny County Elections warehouse, Jerry Tyskiewicz, head of the county’s administrative services, stood in front of the machines that will tabulate votes. He said they’re taking a number of safety precautions at polling stations. “We’ll also provide face shields and floor markings to encourage social distance while people are queued up in line.”

Tyskiewicz also said they will have gloves, hand sanitizer, and sprays to disinfect voting areas after each voter.

“We’ll provide masks for any voter who may have forgotten to wear one, or does not want to wear one. We can at least offer them one,” he said.

Choosing not to wear a face covering puts everyone at risk. But unlike grocery stores or office buildings, people won’t be denied access to the polls.

Tyskiewicz isn’t too worried though. During the three weekends of early voting, which saw high participation, he said he encountered just one person who showed up without a mask.

“And they just out right forgot,” he said. “They forgot they needed a mask.”

So Tyskiewicz says, they gave him one. Then that person cast their ballot and left.