So your state is allowing group gatherings again. Is it risky to take part?

By Claire Gillespie
June 05, 2020
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With stay-at-home orders being lifted in states across the country this month, many of us are wondering, is it actually safe to see family and friends in person right now? And if so, what precautions should we take?

The guidelines about socializing vary by state. Some states, like Louisiana and Massachusetts, have no restrictions on the size of gatherings. In New York and Illinois, groups of up to 10 people are allowed, while New Jersey permits indoor gatherings of up to 10 people and outdoor gatherings of up to 25 people. In California, gatherings of any number of people who are not members of your household are still prohibited.  

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to advise against socializing in groups and recommends avoiding crowded places and mass gatherings—such as conferences, festivals, parades, concerts, sporting events, and weddings. That's because many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic yet can still spread the virus. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic. "Recent studies indicate that people who are infected but do not have symptoms likely also play a role in the spread of COVID-19," states the CDC.

That may have happened a few weeks ago at a party in Arkansas. CNN reported that an asymptomatic person attending a Memorial Day party at the Lake of the Ozarks tested positive for COVID-19. He also visited several bars and restaurants. Over the course of a few hours, he put everyone at the party and anyone else he was in close proximity to at risk of becoming infected. 

So if you live in an area where socializing is legally permitted and you want to start seeing friends, how can you do it safely? The answer isn’t the same for everyone, says David Cutler, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Your ability to socialize safely depends on three factors: the risk of the activity you’re engaging in, your risk of death from COVID-19, and the safety measures you employ when socializing,” he tells Health. Before you arrange that catchup, here are four things to bear in mind. 

There’s a “risk spectrum” when it comes to socializing 

Some gatherings, like a large party in a small house, pose more danger of transmission than others, such as inviting a friend for a drink on your front porch. So if you're dying to socialize, do it in intimate groups and ideally outdoors, where fresh air between people drives down the risk.

“A visit of a few people for an hour or two on your patio with social distancing in place and masks puts you at less risk than spending the day with friends attending a birthday swim party, with large numbers, close proximity, and no masks,” Carol A. Winner, MPH, founder of the Give Space movement and director of federally funded community health-based initiatives, tells Health

If you want to have a friend to visit you in your home—and there’s no local order in place to prohibit this—that’s absolutely fine. But Winner believes it’s wise to keep your home “a safe haven” and recommends holding visits in your yard, on top of maintaining social distance and wearing masks. If this isn’t possible, she recommends choosing a place where there are no crowds and social distancing is being maintained—again, preferably outside. 

If you’re hosting a small outside gathering, take the necessary time to prepare. “Wipe down your chairs and tables and spread the seating apart so everyone can have a safe space,” says Winner, ideally at least six feet from the next person. “Serve any food on paper plates, with disposable bottles or throw-away paper glasses and utensils for a safe cleanup afterwards." Make sure people know to only remove their masks when they are eating.

It's also smart to limit your gatherings to eating, drinking, and sharing conversation—from a safe distance, of course. “Save the game-playing for another time, or schedule one on Zoom for later,” suggests Winner. Game-playing puts you and your guests at risk of transmitting virus via your hands or on surfaces like cards or a game board. 

Decide who you want in your “COVID bubble”  

Staying safe means trying your hardest to follow all coronavirus health and safety recommendations. But that can be difficult if the friends and family members you want to hang out with again aren’t doing the same...especially if their lax behavior starts to rub off on you.

“When we see people around us without masks or not adhering to social distancing guidelines, we think, Maybe I don’t need to worry so much anymore. It is a false sense of security,” says Winner. “The numbers of new cases and deaths tell us of the dangers and that healthy behaviors need to continue to survive the virulence of this virus. We must continue to be extremely cautious.”  

This is where the idea of a “COVID bubble” comes into play. Think of it as a group of people you know well enough to trust that they've been following all the safety guidelines. So when you do get together, you can be reasonably sure you're safe. Your COVID bubble can be as large as you want it to be—it's a wider social circle made up of people that you feel safe socializing with during the pandemic. (But depending on the size, not necessarily all at once.)

Before deciding who is in your bubble, ask yourself: Have they been staying at home? Have they been practicing social distancing when they’ve been out of the home? Have they attended any large events? Are they going to work? Have they been wearing a mask? Spending time with someone who hasn’t been following the guidelines for the last two months could quickly undo all the safety measures you’ve taken to protect yourself and your household.

Consider the dangers to friends and people in your household

Before you catch up IL with friends and family, Winner says it’s important to consider the risk not only to yourself but to those in your household as well as those you're thinking of seeing again. If you or any of those people are elderly or have an underlying health condition, it’s sensible to wait. They are more susceptible to contracting the virus and are also more likely to have a harder time fighting it off—and you don't want your social gathering to be the place they inadvertently became infected.

“Any person who is older, and especially those with high-risk medical conditions like obesity, lung disease, heart disease, hypertension, or diabetes, should continue to restrict their social activity where there is significant risk of acquiring COVID-19,” says Dr. Cutler. “Those in middle age, or younger people with a medical condition, may want to take some measures to reduce risk, while young healthy people can be less concerned about the risk to them.” If you’ve been staying home, making hygiene a priority, and following social-distancing measures, Dr. Cutler says your likelihood of having COVID-19 is very low. 

If you’re not sure about your risk level, or have concerns about a particular social activity, Dr. Cutler advises speaking to your primary-care physician. “They have the best understanding of your medical risk and are also familiar with public-health recommendations, both nationally and in your area,” he says.  

Are our days of spontaneous socializing over? No—but it may be a long time before we go back to it. “Once we have consistent quality and adequate testing procedures and contact tracing to be able to isolate active cases, our risk will be lower and we will have more freedom,” says Winner. Until that point, it’s crucial to stick to healthy behaviors—hand-washing, social distancing, and wearing masks—that have become part of our daily routines. We all want to visit our friends again, but it’s more important to keep them safe. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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