We spoke with three physicians about how and when it's safe to get together with friends again.

By Emily VanSchmus
April 28, 2021
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It's been a long year of lockdowns and social distancing requirements, and with people getting vaccinated before summer, many of us looking forward to hosting outdoor garden parties and backyard barbecues again. As of April 27, more than 231 million U.S. adults have received one dose of the vaccine, and more than 29% of the U.S. population is already fully vaccinated. But as the numbers of vaccinated individuals continue to rise, how do you know when it's safe to have people over again—and what do you do if some people in your circle are vaccinated but others aren't? 

As we approach summer, we spoke with family practice physicians Peter Bailey, M.D., and Allison Edwards, M.D., who have worked throughout the pandemic, about how and when it's safe to get together again. The Kansas City-based doctors gave us a few easy guidelines to follow to help keep you (and those around you) safe as the pandemic begins to wind down.

group of people enjoying dinner outdoors at table
Credit: Matt Armendariz

If you're not vaccinated:

Bailey says the tough part about figuring out what you can and cannot do if you're not yet vaccinated is that there are no hard and fast rules."Without black and white answers, it really becomes a sliding scale of risk and exposure," he says. "The more crowded and contained an event is, the less likely you should do it. The more physically dispersed and less populated an event is, the more likely you are fine." 

If you're wanting to plan a socially distanced activity like kayaking on a lake with your spouse, the risk is lower. But if you want to go to a theme park or other crowded area that's open to full capacity, you'd be putting yourself at a higher risk. 

Edwards suggests using five categories (time, density and distance, ventilation, community characteristics, and personal characteristics) to visualize how risky an activity is. "For example, imagine going to the gym: You're likely going to be there for a long time, it's hard to know what the ventilation is like, and there's a good chance that there will be other people milling about while you're there, which makes it harder to keep your distance," she says. 

"If you are seeing increased spread in your community, or more locally, if the 'community' within the gym isn't masking, your risk for contracting COVID goes up quite a bit. Additionally, it can be hard to not touch your face or to practice good hand hygiene at the gym. This is why gyms can be really high-risk for COVID transmission."

Bailey suggests opting for outdoor events and avoiding indoor or confined activities if you're not vaccinated. "My best advice is to approach outdoor events as less risky, and therefore, safer to attend," he says. He suggests distanced outdoor concerts in the park, hiking, biking, or sitting outside if you do decide to go to a bar or restaurant. Until you're fully vaccinated, you should wear a mask and practice social distancing whenever you leave your home. 

If you're partially vaccinated:

While receiving your first dose of the vaccine is certainly exciting (and a big step toward normalcy), Bailey says you're not in the clear just yet. "In my medical opinion, as long as you are only partially vaccinated, you should act as if you're not vaccinated," he says. Because a partial vaccination only provides partial protection against the virus, it's safer to act as though you're not vaccinated for the few weeks until you're fully vaccinated.

Bailey and Edwards both recommend avoiding confined spaces with a lot of people until you're fully vaccinated. Outdoor gatherings with a few other people are probably fine, "as long as you maintain proper social distancing protocols and don't take too many risks," Bailey says.

It's also important to take into consideration the safety level of those you're gathering with, Edwards explained. An outdoor gathering of two households who have been extremely careful is safer than inviting your neighbors over the day after their trip to Disneyland.

"If you were able to have an outdoor picnic spaced at least six feet from your dinner guests who have been working from home and generally not spending time in close proximity to others—and you practice good hand hygiene during the picnic—you can enjoy others in a lower (not zero!) risk environment," Edwards says.

When you're fully vaccinated:

Once you've received your second shot and are fully vaccinated (keep in mind that "full" vaccination doesn't kick in until about two weeks after your second shot), Bailey and Edwards agree you are generally safe to resume indoor gatherings—as long as you're mindful of those around you.

"If you are fully vaccinated, you can visit (indoors, even) with others who are fully vaccinated," Edwards says. "You can meet inside with one household of unvaccinated people—so long as they are not at increased risk themselves of severe COVID."

Why just one household? Even though the vaccine puts you at much less risk, you're not at zero risk. So, "limiting your exposure to only one household is key," Edwards explains. Although COVID-19 symptoms are reported to be much less severe in those who are vaccinated, it's still possible to get it and spread it, so consider limiting your circle to one or two households this summer.

Backyard barbeques, pool parties, Fourth of July events, and other small summer get-togethers are OK as long as all households involved are fully vaccinated. "You still need to be cautious of the needs and rights of others, but as for yourself, enjoy yourself after a long year in lockdown," he says.

What if not everyone at the gathering is vaccinated?

Because the vaccine is still hard to come by in some areas (and some people can't or won't get it), it's definitely possible you'll be considering whether to host or attend an event where some people are vaccinated and others are not. So is it safe to have a gathering with a mixed group of vaccinated and unvaccinated people? Bailey says likely not. 

"My best advice to handling mixed groups is to follow the lowest common denominator," he says. "This means if you have folks among you that are not vaccinated, approach the situation as if no one is. It is truly the only way to be safe and fair to those folks that aren't completely protected."

He says that doesn't mean you can't have the gathering, just that you'll need to make sure additional safety measures are put in place (and followed by all guests). "If you are hosting a party at your house this summer, generally ask for the same social distancing requirements and take the same cautious steps you would have pre-vaccine," he says. "Unfortunately, until the majority of people get the vaccine, or we achieve herd immunity, things can't go back fully to normal."

What About Kids Who Can't Be Vaccinated Yet?

While the above advice is great news for vaccinated adults, many households have children who can't yet be vaccinated. (Currently only 16-year-olds and older are eligible.) So how does that change your summer plans? We talked to Dyan Hes, M.D., the medical director at Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City, about how to make plans with unvaccinated children.

She says that while the vaccinated adults will be protected, unvaccinated kids aren't protected from each other. "If a person is vaccinated, unvaccinated children should not pose a risk to them," she says. "Remember the vaccines were designed to prevent a person from developing a severe case of COVID that would lead to hospitalization or death, not to completely prevent the spread of disease."

"Having children who are unable to be vaccinated at this time makes unmasking less safe," she says. "Outdoor gatherings should be encouraged and non-vaccinated children over age two should still be masked indoors, if possible, while playing with other children."

Hes estimates that children ages 12 and up won't be able to be vaccinated until fall 2021, which means social distancing and masks should be used throughout the summer.

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