As the weather gets warmer and summer kicks into full swing, you might be itching to plan a picnic with friends or enjoy a backyard barbecue. But while the novel coronavirus pandemic persists, you may wonder whether you'll be able to take part in typical summertime group activities.
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Even in places where COVID-19 appears to be under control, getting together in groups is never without risk. That's why when you do choose to hang with friends or family members outside your household, you must take steps to protect yourself and others, Brandon J. Brown MPH, PhD, an epidemiologist and associate professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health at the University of California, Riverside, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Below, Brown shares strategies for staying safe while spending time with family and friends at barbecues and other go-to summer gatherings.
1. Stay Home if You’re Sick
If you're showing signs of sickness, skip the summer gathering. Also, if you're not vaccinated and have been exposed to a COVID-19 carrier in the past two weeks, stay home as well. It can take up to 14 days for you to develop symptoms, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, you can still spread the disease when you're pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.
In fact, up to 45 percent of all COVID-19 cases may be the result of asymptomatic infections, according to a June 2020 review in Annals of Internal Medicine, which means people could be passing the infection along to others without knowing they themselves are infected.
2. Assess the Situation
After months of quarantine and social isolation, we're all excited to get out of the house and see our loved ones. But before you go to a gathering, consider your risk.
"Given that we are still in the middle of a pandemic, you should definitely assess the safety of your environment," Brown says.
If You're Not Vaccinated:
Brown suggests asking yourself the following questions to help you understand the level of risk:
- Will the gathering take place indoors or outdoors? Brown says opt for outdoors because enclosed, confined spaces — where it might be tougher to socially distance and there's less ventilation — can increase your chances of infection.
- How many people will be attending? The more people you interact with, the greater your odds of encountering and becoming infected with the novel coronavirus, per the CDC.
- Can you safely physically distance yourself from others in the environment? For instance, will there be young children who may forget the urgency of physical distancing when they get excited and run around? If you can't stay at least 6 feet apart from others who may be potential COVID-19 carriers, your odds of getting sick go up.
- Are you at risk for severe illness? If you're 65 years of age or older or have any chronic conditions or a suppressed immune system, your risk is greater, according to the CDC.
- Do you live with someone who is at risk? Again, if you live with an elderly person or someone who has a serious medical condition, you might expose them to the virus if you encounter someone with COVID-19.
- Is COVID-19 spreading in your community? If cases are surging in your area, you should reconsider attending a gathering outside your home. To better assess your risk and the current situation in your community, stay informed of your state and local guidelines.
To avoid walking blindly into a potentially risky situation, Brown says it's best to set ground rules with your host and the other attendees beforehand. "Protect yourself by agreeing in advance about what will happen at the get-together," he says.
If You Are Fully Vaccinated:
If it's been at least two weeks since your second COVID shot (or the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson), you can let your guard down a little bit. But don't throw precaution to the wind. Ask yourself:
- Will the gathering take place indoors or outdoors? Even if you've been jabbed, it's still safest for everyone to gather outside rather than inside, per the CDC. There's very little risk of exposure in outdoor settings
- How many people will be attending? If you're going to be indoors, the CDC says gathering only with other fully vaccinated people is OK, as well as unvaccinated people from a single household. If you throw more unvaccinated people into the mix, you up the risk of spreading the virus considerably. If you're going to be outdoors, the risk is much lower, but you should still try to avoid large events and crowds.
- Could you be putting other people at risk? If you live or will be gathering with someone who's at increased risk of severe COVID-19, you should be especially cautious about physical distancing, mask wearing and hand-washing, per the CDC.
3. Pack Your Own Stuff
"Remember that every object or surface can have virus on it, and your job is to prevent yourself and loved ones from getting the virus," Brown says. That's why you should reduce the number of items you share with people outside your household. You can do that by bringing your own supplies.
Before you leave your home, create a checklist of all the things you plan to use when you’re out.
Brown recommends bringing your own chairs and folding table, as well as your own food, drinks and utensils. While the coronavirus isn't foodborne, preparing your own food reduces the number of hands touching your stuff and the amount of contact you have with others.
If you plan to take a dip in the pool, bring your own beach towel, too. And always pack essentials like hand sanitizer (with at least 60 percent ethanol), a mask or two, tissues, disinfectant wipes and paper towels.
When you arrive at the gathering, you might want to hug and kiss your friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, this isn't a good idea. Steer clear of shaking hands, doing elbow bumps or giving hugs — basically anything that involves close contact — in favor of verbal greetings, recommends the CDC.
In the same vein, you should set up tables and chairs to allow for social distancing, maintaining 6 feet from other families or people you don't live with, according to the CDC.
But can you sit at the same table and break bread if you keep 6 feet apart? Also not a good idea, Brown says. "There are still times when people need to reach across the table, to get up from their seat to get something or perhaps someone inadvertently throws a toy or a ball that hits the table and makes everyone get up all at once," he explains.
What's more, you can't wear masks when eating. So, there's a possibility that germs are circulating around the table while people chow down and chat. By sitting with your household members and distancing with others while eating, you have slightly more control over your environment and your potential risk.
5. Wear a Mask
If you're unvaccinated and hanging with friends and people outside your home who are also unvaccinated, the CDC recommends you sport a face mask when you're less than 6 feet apart or indoors. Wearing a mask is the most effective strategy for stopping the spread of COVID-19, per a June 2020 analysis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Brown adds that it might be a good idea to wear a face covering even when you're physically distancing from others. This makes sense when you consider that some people talk louder than others and thus emit speech droplets that may travel farther, reach your air space and potentially infect you.
As long as you’re not eating or drinking, you should probably keep your mask on to be as safe as possible.
If you're unvaccinated but getting together with only vaccinated people outdoors, or you're vaccinated and the outdoor gathering is small, you can skip the mask.
6. Be Safe When Serving Food
While bringing your food pre-prepared and ready to eat is ideal, you might not have the means to do so. If you plan to eat your host's grub, speak with them beforehand to make sure they're aware of the proper precautions outlined by the CDC.
For instance, there should be a limited number of people preparing, handling and serving food. This reduces the points of contact that guests have with one another and shared items. So, you might consider delegating one person to do the grilling. What's more, this assigned chef should shovel hot dogs and hamburgers directly from the spatula to a person's plate. That way no one has to grab from a tray, which decreases foot traffic and crowding around the food and the number of hands reaching inside the same tray.
Use single-use food options such as packets of salad dressings or condiments as well as disposable food containers and utensils, so that multiple people don't have to touch the same items, recommends the CDC.
To that point, no shared fruit or veggie platters permitted and no communal bowl of chips and dip, either.
7. Be Careful With Bathrooms
The indoor environment is the riskiest when it comes to possible transmission of COVID-19, so if you're unvaccinated, you should avoid being inside another person's house whenever possible. That said, when nature inevitably calls, there are things you can do to make your trip to the restroom just a little bit safer.
First, always wear a mask inside and be aware of all the surfaces that you (and others) are touching, including toilet seats, toilet buttons, the sink and doorknobs, Brown says. Use a tissue to open and close the bathroom door and sanitize your hands before and after you use the restroom to keep yourself and others safe.
Before flushing, shut the toilet seat. Though evidence is currently limited, initial studies show that COVID-19 may live in feces, according to a May 2020 paper in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.
Also, don't use the host's hand towel to dry your hands because germs are more likely to linger in a damp, reusable cloth. Stick with paper towels or bring your own small towel for personal use.
8. Prepare for the Pool
The sun's out, it's 90 degrees and the pool is calling your name. But is it safe to go swimming?
"There is no evidence that COVID-19 is spread by the water in a pool," Brown says. Indeed, the chlorine or bromine used to keep the pool clean should deactivate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, per the CDC.
Still, the 6-foot rule applies when you're in the water. If people are forgetting to socially distance, ask them to do so before you get in, Brown says. "Sometimes it just takes saying something to bring awareness back to what we need to do to keep safe at this time."
If the pool is too crowded and there's no way to practice social distancing, wait until some swimmers exit before taking your dip. Be mindful about the items you touch such as pool toys, which may have been handled by many others.
Once you dry off — using your own towel from home — make sure to sanitize your hands. While washing with soap and water is best for killing germs, in this case, you might use hand sanitizer instead to avoid an additional trip indoors.
9. Limit Alcohol
After quarantining for months, there's no shame in wanting to enjoy yourself and have a few cocktails to unwind. The problem is, drinking complicates things like social distancing.
"Excessive alcohol use might decrease your awareness of the need for physical distancing and might lead people to forget about using the other COVID-19 prevention tools we have available," Brown says. In other words, when we drink, we get less inhibited and looser with our safety precautions.
Having a few too many can also make people become more boisterous and speak a little louder. The issue with that is talking in amplified voices may raise the number of speech droplets you release into the air, per a February 2019 study in Scientific Reports. And because respiratory droplets are the primary mode of transmission for COVID-19, loud talking or yelling should be avoided to decrease your risk of catching or spreading the disease.
10. Get Rid of Garbage
Keeping your own trash bag handy at your private table is a smart idea. This way you only need to make one trip to the communal garbage can, thus limiting your exposure to others and minimizing your risk of transmission.
But if you've volunteered to help with the cleanup effort, always wear gloves when handling and disposing of trash, per the CDC. Ideally, your host will have touchless garbage cans or pails.
As soon as you remove your gloves, dispose of them and lather up your hands for 20 seconds (sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice through to hit that mark).
11. As Soon as You Return, Clean and Disinfect
Once home, immediately go to the sink and suds up, so you don't track any germs through your place.
Next, use sanitizing wipes to disinfect anything you touched while outside with dirty hands, from your phone to doorknobs and the faucet, as well as your table and chairs. And if you used reusable utensils and containers for food, wash them right away with soap and water. Then toss your soiled towels, clothes and cloth masks in the laundry.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Personal and Social Activities”
- Annals of Internal Medicine: “Prevalence of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infection”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Visiting Parks and Recreational Facilities”
- Scientific Reports: “Aerosol Emission and Superemission During Human Speech Increase With Voice Loudness”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Deciding to Go Out”
- Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: “Identifying Airborne Transmission as the Dominant Route for the Spread of COVID-19”
- International Journal of Infectious Diseases: “Potential Fecal Transmission of SARS-CoV-2: Current Evidence and Implications for Public Health”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Symptoms of Coronavirus"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.