What constitutes a ‘safe’ gathering during the pandemic?
Your sister’s tiny outdoor wedding is less than two months away. Your nephew’s family-only backyard birthday party — complete with bounce house and an ice cream truck — is next week. Your neighbors are having a potluck block party. And your oldest friend is hosting a socially distanced, indoor girls’ night at her home on Saturday.
But before you RSVP “yes” to anything, consider this: small gatherings like these are quickly becoming the largest source of COVID-19 spread.
The latest uptick has a lot of people wondering if it’s ever OK to attend social gatherings. Is there such a thing as a “safe” celebration during a pandemic?
We spoke with our infectious diseases and infection control specialist Roy Chemaly, M.D. He’s what he had to say.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about hosting outdoor celebrations outside to make them “safe.” Is it really OK for people to socialize this way during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Under certain circumstances, yes. But that “yes” comes with a lot of qualifications. For the risk of COVID-19 transmission to be relatively low, all of the following criteria must be met:
the event must be held outside
the event must be kept small — ideally, 10 people or fewer
everyone must be wearing a mask — and properly, with the mask covering both their nose and mouth
people must stay at least six feet away from anyone they don’t live with all the time
community spread of COVID in both your and the event’s location must be under control
It goes without saying that everyone should still be washing their hands frequently, not sharing food or drinks, and using hand sanitizer after touching anything communal, such as serving spoons at a buffet table.
But think twice if you’re immunocompromised or caring for someone else who is. The risks of both catching the coronavirus yourself and transmitting it to a vulnerable loved one are greater for you than the average person, even if all of the above criteria are met.
Are family gatherings safe if they’re small?
Any time you invite people over who don’t normally live with you, the odds of transmission increase. And the more people are involved, the greater your chances of getting the coronavirus.
Sometimes, I overhear people saying things like, “Well, it’s just my mom or dad, so it’ll be fine.” But that’s not the case. The risk is there and it applies to everyone who doesn’t live with you, regardless of whether it’s a blood relative or a member of your extended family.
How many people is too many to have at a gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still recommends limiting the number of people at any given gathering to 10 or fewer, and grouping household members together at different tables or seating areas with at least six feet of space in between them.
The more people at a gathering, the greater the risk is to everyone who attends, including you.
Do I still have to wear a mask if we’re all social distancing and the event is outside?
Yes. You should be wearing a mask when you’re around anyone outside of your household. Even when you’re outside. And even when you’re with your grandkids, cousins or adult kids who don’t live with you.
Unless you’re eating or drinking (while socially distanced), everyone present should be wearing a mask. Think about how many times people brush by one another, just to get to the bathroom or grab a drink refill. It may only be for a second, but what if they (or you) sneeze or cough, right at that moment?
You can’t predict when things like that might happen. But if you (or they) aren’t wearing a mask when they do, then the risk of exposure to coronavirus droplet spray increases significantly.
What about indoor gatherings? Are those ever safe during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Until we achieve herd immunity as a society, the safest type of indoor gathering to have right now is one that only involves members of your own household. Assuming no one who lives with you has an active case of the coronavirus or is quarantining after being exposed to the virus, then there’s no need for social distancing or mask wearing in that particular scenario.
But if you do have an indoor gathering involving other people, leave the doors and windows open, if possible, to let fresh air circulate.
Remember: every choice you make right now either increases or decreases your risk of catching the coronavirus. So, choose wisely when making plans to host or attend a gathering.