8 Ways You Can Prepare for a Coronavirus Outbreak

AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images
AlexRaths/iStock via Getty Images

On Tuesday, February 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave an update on the status of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the U.S. Though there have been about 60 cases of the disease in the country so far, and only one from an unidentified source, the federal government warns that Americans should start preparing for a coronavirus outbreak—or, potentially, a pandemic. That may sound alarming, but it’s not a signal to buy surgical masks in bulk or lock yourself indoors. Mental Floss spoke with an expert about what to expect if the new coronavirus spreads in the U.S. and the best ways to keep yourself and your community safe—as well as what “safety” practices to avoid.

1. Don’t panic.

If the word pandemic calls to mind a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, give yourself a reality check. The World Health Organization defines pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.” In other words, it describes the range and infection rate of a virus, not how deadly it is. “The word pandemic has been used when discussing how this outbreak may unfold, and while it may be scary, pandemics are not always deadly,” Caitlin Wolfe, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, tells Mental Floss. (Wolfe was a former consultant epidemiologist for WHO, but her statements are her own.)

As of February 23, the CDC reported 78,811 cases of COVID-19 and 2462 associated deaths worldwide. In some cases, patients with the disease show no symptoms at all, and it's still unclear what percentage of infected people are symptomatic. So even when one expert suggests 40 to 70 percent of all people could get the new coronavirus within a year, it says nothing about how many people will die from it or even get experience symptoms.

Instead of fretting over sensationalist headlines, Wolfe recommends reading trustworthy sources. “Stay informed. Seek out information from local and state health departments on what is happening in your area. The relevant health authorities here in the U.S. have been very proactive in sharing information regarding this new virus as it becomes available,” she says. The CDC’s coronavirus webpage is an excellent place to start.

2. Stock up on essentials.

During its recent coronavirus update, the CDC warned that Americans should prepare for disruptions to their daily lives. This not only means potential quarantines that would keep people out of schools or offices, but also food and supply shortages as economies around the world deal with the fallout. The most important item to stock up on is medication. “The FDA commissioner went on the record stating that though it hasn't been seen yet, this outbreak will likely affect the medical supply chain,” Wolfe says. “In the event of medicine shortages, people should try to make sure they have a 30-day supply of whatever medications they need in case there is a delay in refilling their prescriptions.”

Once that’s taken care of, start stockpiling non-perishable foods, toiletries, and other items for your home. Wolfe recommends tissues specifically, with a reminder that they should always be thrown away immediately after use. As is the case with medication, having enough essential supplies to get through a month is ideal.

3. If you’re healthy, leave the mask at home.

Medical masks have already become a symbol of the coronavirus outbreak. Following unprecedented demand in China, there are currently shortages all over the world. But there’s no need to order a package of masks online for four times the regular cost. According to Wolfe, wearing a mask outdoors won’t do much to stop you from catching the coronavirus: “Wearing a mask in public if you are healthy, especially the commonly seen surgical masks, is not useful. These masks fit too loosely around the face to block the inhalation of viral particles.” The only cases when wearing such gear may be worthwhile is if you already feel ill. “Wearing a surgical mask if you are sick is a good idea, as this can help reduce the amount of germs you spread to others,” Wolfe says.

4. Buy alcohol-based cleaners and hand sanitizers.

When buying things to disinfect yourself and your home, make sure alcohol is listed as an ingredient. Alcohol-based cleaning sprays and wipes can kill the coronavirus. It should also be the main ingredient in your hand sanitizer. According to Wolfe, “Hand sanitizer is all right in a pinch, but make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol.” Washing your hands with soap and water, she notes, is the best way to keep your hands clean.

Alcohol’s protective properties don’t apply to a virus that has already entered the body, so don’t use the public health threat as an excuse to binge-drink, and definitely don't ingest cleaners or spray them onto your skin.

5. Spend more time washing your hands.

The simplest way to protect yourself from the coronavirus and viral infections in general is to improve your hand-washing game. A 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Americans fall short of washing our hands properly 97 percent of the time. The minimum time for hand-washing recommended by the CDC is 20 seconds, or about two full renditions of “Happy Birthday.” You should be washing with warm, soapy water, scrubbing all parts of your hands and wrists, and drying off with a clean towel. Washing up before and after preparing food and after using the bathroom is essential, but in the case of a pandemic, you should be washing your hands as frequently as possible.

6. Stop touching your face.

That hand-washing statistic is even more disturbing coupled with the fact that people may touch their face up to 52 times per day. “Resist the urge to touch your face,” Wolfe says, because “you’re hand-delivering any germs on your hands right to where they may enter your body.”

7. Stay home if you’re sick.

If you feel sick, do the members of your community a favor and stay home. This applies to children who go to school as well as adults who work outside the home. If you’re unfamiliar with your workplace’s sick day policy, ask about it now even if you feel healthy. And if you're a parent, now’s the time to figure out a childcare plan if your kid needs to stay home sick during the day, or if schools close temporarily.

8. Get your flu shot if you haven’t already.

The best time to get your flu shot is early in the season, but late is better than never, especially as the threat of the coronavirus grows. “You do not want to be heading to the hospital with the flu during an outbreak of another disease,” Wolfe says. “You risk exposing yourself and your loved ones, and using resources that could be redirected in the event of an outbreak of coronavirus.” You can look up flu shot providers by ZIP code on the CDC’s website.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29


This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28


The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24


Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19


If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275


The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24


Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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ScareHouse: How a Famously In-Your-Face Haunted House Is Using the Pandemic to Its Advantage

ScareHouse is serving up a ton of (socially-distanced) terrors in Tarentum, Pennsylvania.
ScareHouse is serving up a ton of (socially-distanced) terrors in Tarentum, Pennsylvania.
Photo courtesy Nick Keppler

During its first 20 years, every face paint-caked zombie or masked ghoul working at Pittsburgh's ScareHouse was taught one maxim: Get into people’s personal space.

"We told them, 'Don’t touch anyone, but get as close as you can,'" Scott Simmons, founder and creative director of the longtime haunted attraction, tells Mental Floss.

Things are different this year. Like so much else, that rule has been canceled due to coronavirus. Halloween is just the latest annual tradition to require a readjustment because of the current pandemic. Health officials are discouraging costume parties and people are buying candy chutes for trick-or-treaters. Haunts—the industry term for the mazes of frightful sights and sounds that crop up every October—have faced a choice familiar to event organizers: skip a season or adjust.

To Scare or Not to Scare


After weighing the options, ScareHouse (a particularly high-production venture that has gotten nods from the likes of Oscar-winning horror master Guillermo del Toro) decided to adjust—and even took this unexpected change of plans as a unique opportunity to create a haunt built specifically with COVID-19 precautions in mind. Due to limited parking, Simmons abandoned the former Elks Lodge that ScareHouse has called home since 2007. In March, he signed a lease for a new location, a former H&M store in a half-empty shopping mall in Tarentum, Pennsylvania, located about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

Simmons and his collaborators were in the midst of planning their labyrinth of terror when they saw Plexiglas go up in grocery stores and social distancing become the norm. With a wide open space as a blank canvas, they realized they could incorporate elements of COVID-19 restrictions into ScareHouse's design.

Though the actors can no longer invade a visitor's personal space—they have to stay six feet away and wear a face mask at all times (as do customers)—there are plenty of other tools in the haunt master's toolbox.

This year's iteration of ScareHouse relies on techniques that are either very advanced or completely basic. "It’s light sensors and animatronics or it’s characters pounding on glass and people moving around wearing something glow-in-the-dark and some stuff I haven’t seen since I was 15," Simmons says.

Back to Basics

Photo courtesy Nick Keppler

ScareHouse's first segment is a demon-possessed family home. Actors play supernatural specters, the now-crazed residents, or urban explorers and nuns who became trapped after they entered the home to either document or exorcise it. Built into each room is a reason for the actor to be masked and distant.

In a children’s bedroom, an actor in a teddy bear outfit leaps up from a stack of stuffed animals, which creates a barrier from each passing group. A demented housewife character appears in a kitchen covered in (plastic) guts and spoiled food. She stays in a corner behind an open refrigerator door and a manic smile is painted onto her facemask. When passing through the darkened bathroom stage, patrons see a mirror that’s actually a replication of the bathroom stage behind Plexiglas. An actor can then startle them and pound against it.

In a bedroom, a woman writhes in a bed (in tribute to The Exorcist); a pair of fake legs gives the appearance that her body has been contorted. The bed is covered in plastic resembling bed curtains. ScareHouse has provided the actor with recorded screams and growls she can summon with a button, so she doesn’t have to release her own spit into the air.

This year, the staff has been reduced from the 200 usually employed seasonally to just 90 people. Simmons said he wanted fewer actors trading costumes and spending time in make-up chairs.

Technology and props have taken over some of the work of frightening teenagers and other scare-seekers.

Eerie Adaptions

Photo courtesy of ScareHouse

As patrons enter the attraction, they are given flashlights and come into a darkened parlor, decked out in antique furniture. The flashlights are another adaptation; they give a way to explore the room without touching anything. And they interact with photon sensors to create some eerie effects.

In the parlor, a motion detector causes a piano top to rattle but once a patron points their flashlight at it, a photon sensor causes it to stop. The same trick works on a Ouija board sitting on a table. A motion detection signal causes the planchette to vibrate. A photon detector causes it to stop at the touch of a beam of light. This creates the impression that a poltergeist is responding to patrons’ actions.

The ScareHouse has also made use of animatronics and puppets. A werewolf and a set of dinosaur jaws pop out of darkened spaces. An animatronic woman removes her face to reveal a mesh of blood at the signal of a motion detector.

Another segment of ScareHouse is a “fever dream” employing a freakish mesh of body parts twisted onto the walls and glass tank of smoke and light, in which an actor plays some kind of creature (exactly what it is is left up to the patron's imagination). “We don’t even need a costume,” operations manager Maryane Kimbler tells Mental Floss. “You can’t see them. They create these fantastic motions and shapes.”

Haunted Ambitions

Photo courtesy Nick Keppler

Perhaps the most ambitious scene is the “courtyard” of the possessed house. Patrons walk through a backyard scattered with skeletal bits and see a character called the Specter of the Forest, dressed in branches and grass. He rings a bell and tells them to come forward. “But he’s a total distraction,” Kimbler admits.

As they walk toward him, a terrifying animatronic called the “nun lunger” pops out of doorway. She’s just a doll in a nun’s habit and gown with a face that looks like it was borrowed from Marilyn Manson circa 1993, but she's moving on a track and rushes 12 feet across the room under flashing strobe lights.

Once again, concocted terror belies actual safety considerations. In years past, the nun may have been played by an actor, commissioned to come close and scream and snarl. None of that can be done with ScareHouse's careful social distancing measures in place. Instead, the actor—that Specter of the Forrest—is given a secondary role in the thrill. The idea is that, startled by the sudden sprint of this decay-faced nun, they run past him, as he stays behind a fence-like barrier.

In 2020, it’s the safest way to be terrified.