The absence of magazines, toys and other people in the waiting room might come as a shock to some patients, but that won't be their first indication that the coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed the experience of going to see a dentist.
New state and federal guidelines requiring dental offices to stagger patient visits means customers are being asked to call ahead before entering. Office staff assess them for possible symptoms over the phone and ask them to wear a mask prior to entering, at which point their temperature is taken.
The changes don't end there: Once seated in the chair, patients can expect a new approach to dental procedures, including less use of aerosols and greater reliance on suctions and air filters.
Like so much else these days, such as getting a haircut or going shopping, dentistry has been remade by the pandemic — possibly for the long term.
That's a good thing from the perspective of Santa Barbara-based periodontist Richard Nagy, president of the California Dental Association, who comes regularly to Bakersfield to see patients.
People who worried about their teeth during the quarantine are now relieved to finally get professional attention, he said. Knowing that dental problems can lead to other health concerns, they tell him how grateful they are to finally get work done that had been delayed because of the pandemic, he said.
"It just made them feel more at ease within their body,” Nagy said.
He and another local practitioner said most dental offices reopened about a month ago under the new restrictions, despite a significantly lower volume of patients and added expenses because of the need for masks, face shields, gowns and other personal protective equipment.
At least one other local dental practice, Rosedale Dental Studio, is taking coronavirus precautions a step or two further.
Co-owners Alfonso Li Jr. and dentist Nicole Chen spent more than a year searching for somewhere to set up their new dental practice.
Then, on March 19, less than a week after they finally received keys to the office near the intersection of Calloway Drive and Rosedale Highway, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued California's stay-at-home order.
At that point, what was originally going to be a modest renovation of the roughly 1,800-square-foot site turned into a major overhaul.
There would be walls between patient treatment areas and a new medical-grade air filtration system. Sterilization equipment was moved still farther from patient seating.
Li and Chen said the idea was to allay patients' fears about not only visiting a dentist — something many in the profession wrestle with daily — but to make them feel extra secure that they won't be exposed to the novel coronavirus.
"A core value for us is we want to do dentistry differently," Li said. Part of that will mean Netflix- and Hulu-equipped televisions on the wall and even the ceiling of each patient-treatment area, he said.
Chen said the project presents a big trade-off in terms of how much money it's going to cost to open and how soon that might happen. She doesn't expect to begin seeing patients until August.
“Even though it’s more time and money, I think it’s worth it," she said.
Dental professionals, more than some other workers, are highly trained to contain and protect against infectious diseases. Local dentists say that focus only sharpened once they were allowed to resume relatively normal operations about a month ago.
Prior to that, the stay-at-home order issued March 19 ruled out most day-to-day dentistry, including checkups and dental hygiene. Only emergency procedures were permitted.
This restriction gave rise to what's been termed teledentistry, in which dentists examine patients' teeth using remote video technology. Although many procedures were understandably out of reach, the practice has allowed professionals to advise patients on what problems call for immediate, emergency attention.
Bakersfield oral surgeon Olena Norris might be considered one of the fortunate ones. The owner of Norris Oral and Facial Surgery inside Stockdale Tower continued to work during the quarantine, seeing patients with broken teeth and infections.
Norris said the changes she and other dentists have had to institute during the quarantine have been substantial and, at times, cumbersome.
But they've yielded good results, she added.
"Now everyone is happy that they can be seen," said Norris, a board member of the Kern County Dental Society. "They feel safe when they come to a dental office.”
While there are limits to what can be accomplished with teledentistry, she said, many of the new health and safety precautions may well outlast the pandemic.
"I think we become even better” at containing infectious diseases, Norris said. Although the situation has been difficult, she said, "something positive … came out of it."