A few months can feel like an eternity, especially when it comes to social distancing from loved ones. Even as precautionary regulations start to ease up in some areas, meeting up with friends or family will look quite different.
Follow these steps before you venture out to prioritize your safety and the health of your loved ones.
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1. Ask a Few Questions
Think long and hard before deciding to meet up with friends or family. Your own health is a priority, and you want to be considerate of others, too.
Contracting COVID-19 is a lot about the company you keep, explains Stephen Berger, MD, infectious disease expert and co-founder of GIDEON (Global Infectious Diseases and Epidemiology Network). But the places you go can make a difference, too.
"Infectious material enters our body through our mouth or nose — either because you were within a few feet of a human carrier, or because something brought this material to the area of our face," Dr. Berger says.
Spending time interacting closely with others increases the risk of spreading COVID-19, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And, the longer the interaction, the higher the risk, the CDC notes.
Keep at-risk groups in mind as you gather with other people. Unvaccinated adults over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions should avoid group meetings, according to the CDC. That's because they have a higher risk for becoming severely ill with COVID-19, per the CDC — this could result in hospitalization, requiring intensive care or even death, the CDC notes.
Before you decide to reunite with loved ones in person, consider the following crucial factors:
Are You Fully Vaccinated?
If you're fully vaccinated (that is, it's been at least two weeks since your final dose of the COVID vaccine), you can start to enjoy some of the indoor activities you may have stopped during the pandemic, according to the CDC. But there are still some precautions that will keep your loved ones safe, especially if they haven't been vaccinated.
The COVID-19 vaccine can help protect you from getting sick, per the CDC, but it won't keep your family and friends safe if they haven't been vaccinated, too. And vice versa: Meeting with vaccinated friends if you haven't also gotten your dose won't necessarily protect you.
Meeting with other fully vaccinated people indoors is generally OK to do mask-free without social distancing. Also, gathering outdoors in small groups with members of your household or other fully vaccinated folks is generally safe for both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, according to the CDC.
But your unvaccinated family members probably won't be as safe sitting at a restaurant or meeting you in a crowded mall.
When you meet with unvaccinated loved ones, choose an area or activity that's safe for both parties. Wear a mask at all times and keep a 6-foot distance. Also, monitor the overall spread in your community to decide whether meeting at all is safe.
What's the Infection Rate?
Check whether you're in an area with higher infection rates. That may require a little prior research, says Eudene Harry, MD. Each state has its own Department of Health website, where you can search COVID-19 infection rates by zip code.
See a list of health department websites for every state and territory in the United States, via the CDC.
Attending events with people from your local community is less risky than going to gatherings with attendees who traveled from other locations, per the CDC.
But meeting with neighbors doesn't necessarily mean you're at a lower risk of getting or spreading the virus. You can't predict another person's exposure (more on that below). And the higher the level of transmission in the area your gathering is being held, the higher the risk of spreading COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Have You Self-Isolated?
If you're unvaccinated, the only way you can guarantee you're safe to see others is if you self-quarantine for at least 14 days after coming in contact with others, according to the CDC — that means isolating for two weeks after a trip to the grocery store, for instance.
The same rule applies to your friends as well. If they want to be as safe and responsible as possible, it's crucial that they self-quarantine for at least 14 days before your meeting.
Then, if everyone involved is symptom-free during self-isolation, you can form plans to meet up.
Of course, this takes a great deal of trust, which is why you should seriously consider whether you feel confident that both you and your loved one have taken every precaution possible. If you feel uncertain, it's totally OK to cancel or delay plans to a later time.
Do You Have Any Symptoms?
The above-mentioned precautionary measures only work if you get through the 14 days of isolation totally symptom-free.
Common COVID-19 Symptoms
While everyone can experience COVID-19 symptoms differently, here are some signs to look for, per the CDC:
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
If you experience any of these symptoms in the two weeks leading up to your gathering, it's safest to avoid seeing others and quarantine for at least 14 days. If you have trouble breathing, pressure or pain in the chest, confusion, trouble sleeping/staying awake or blue-looking lips, seek medical attention immediately.
Have Your Friends and Family Had Symptoms?
It's possible to be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19, Dr. Berger says — that is, even someone who doesn't show any symptoms may still infect others. Isolating for 14 days prior to your hangout is only effective if you're totally alone.
If you live with others, ask them if they have experienced any symptoms in the past two weeks. Although this measure isn't as effective as total isolation, it's a sensible precaution. Before meeting up, you may also want to inquire if the people who live with your friend have been observing social distancing guidelines, too.
If you still feel comfortable reuniting with loved ones after taking these questions into consideration, then make sure you're as prepared as possible (read on to learn more).
2. Plan Your Meeting Strategically
Keeping your meeting as safe as possible will require careful planning and prep in advance so you can follow social distancing guidelines.
If you or anyone in your meet-up party is unvaccinated, your gathering should take place outside. The outdoors offers more space, making it easier to keep 6 feet apart from others at all times, Dr. Harry explains. Keeping your meeting outside also minimizes the amount of air that's circulated between people.
If you wake up to some rainy weather on the day of your hangout, it's wisest to postpone the meeting.
The exception here is if everyone is fully vaccinated. In that case, you can hang together indoors, as long as none of you live with someone who is unvaccinated and at high risk for severe COVID-19.
Avoid Surface Contact
You may take great pride in being a good host, but this isn't the time to show off your baking or cheese plate-prepping skills. Although the novel coronavirus is most easily transmitted through droplets in the air, the virus can remain on surfaces (that includes plates, utensils, etc) for hours to days at a time, according to the CDC.
If unvaccinated guests happen to touch some outdoor furniture or a table, for instance, disinfect the surface (wearing gloves and a mask) as thoroughly as possible using an EPA-registered disinfectant, like Clorox Bleach.
While it may already be understood, make it perfectly clear that your hangout isn't an open invitation. The fewer people you see, the lower your risk of exposure.
If it's an option, keep your outdoor meeting on private property (like a backyard). This way, you can keep away from strangers in public, exposing yourself, friends and family members to as little outside contact as possible.
In any public location, avoid using the restroom, Dr. Berger says. "Lavatories are, unfortunately, ideal for the transmission of COVID-19," he says. Among the reasons to avoid the restroom, he mentions:
- Lack of ventilation: There's not a lot of air circulation in this inside space.
- Close quarters: Urinals and sinks are close together, and any partition between urinals rarely extends upward to protect the face.
- Lingering droplets: Even in toilet stalls, which offer more isolation, droplets and aerosols linger for several minutes after the prior user exits.
3. Interact Safely
If you're both vaccinated, go ahead and give your best friend a hug, sans mask.
If one or both of you hasn't gotten the shot (or it hasn't been two full weeks since your final dose), then hold off on any physical affection and avoid breaking the 6-foot barrier, Dr. Harry says.
6 Feet of Space Looks Like:
- About two arms' lengths
- The length of a twin mattress
- Two yardsticks tip-to-tip
- The height of an average fridge
- One foot shorter than Shaquille O'Neal
Although you may have come across tips for safely hugging unvaccinated loved ones, it's simply not recommended right now. Stick to a friendly wave.
Wear a mask at all times during your get-together. The droplets that spread the virus are released when people talk, cough or sneeze, according to the CDC. Keeping your mouth and nose completely covered can help minimize the spread.
Yelling or shouting may also release more droplets into the air, according to a February 2019 study in Scientific Reports. Although this research has not been tested on the novel coronavirus, it's probably wisest to keep your voice at an indoor volume, despite your outdoor location.
Wearing a mask is crucial, but keep in mind that "face masks are not 100 percent effective," Dr. Berger says. "Extremely small particles, including the virus itself, might pass through the spaces that allow air to pass. Further, face masks do not protect our hands, clothing, objects that we may be carrying, etc. All of these are exposed to contaminated secretions and might infect us at some later time."
4. Keep Outings Short
It's normal to feel concern, anxiety or stress with the current situation, says Aimee Daramus, PsyD. After all, COVID-19 protocols and precautions are still relatively new for everyone.
One way to cope with your concern is to start small with your outings, Daramus says. If you want to see others but don't feel ready to launch back into your social life, keep your time in public brief.
"Start by going out by yourself, to places whose boundaries you're comfortable with," Daramus suggests. "Look at the latest recommendations from medical organizations or your doctor and work with their advice. Take short trips out, then stay out a little longer when you're ready."
5. Respect Personal Limits
Although you may feel excited to meet with friends and family that you haven't seen for awhile, remember that everyone has different concerns about the virus, Daramus says. Be respectful of any limits your loved ones request, she says. Before you assume your loved ones are ready to meet in person, ask them what they're comfortable with.
Also, be clear and open about your own concerns and limitations, finding a compromise that all parties are confident in upholding. "Set safety boundaries ahead of time and make sure you have a way to leave early if people disrespect your boundaries," Daramus recommends.
Don't feel offended if someone turns down an invitation for in-person socializing. "It's not a personal insult, they just want to stay healthy," Daramus says.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- CDC: "Symptoms of Coronavirus"
- CDC: "Considerations for Events and Gatherings"
- CDD: "State & Territorial Health Department Websites"
- CDC: "Quarantine and Isolation"
- CDC: "Social Distancing"
- Scientific Reports: "Aerosol Emission and Superemission During Human Speech Increase With Voice Loudness"
- CDC: "Deciding to Go Out"
- CDC: "People Who Are at Increased Risk for Severe Illness"
- CDC: "When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated"
- CDC: "Choosing Safer Activities"
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