States across the country are entering the next phase of reopening after the coronavirus lockdown, where group gatherings are permissible. The details around each measure, from size to setting, vary, but even Americans in areas that had high transmission rates, like New York City, can now safely socialize with friends and family outside their households.
In late May, New York and New Jersey Govs. Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy issued orders allowing nonessential gatherings of 10 people. Parts of Washington state are in the second phase of reopening, which permits individuals to meet with five people who don't live with them each week. As of last Friday, much of Illinois can host groups of 10 people.
But these gatherings shouldn't come without restrictions, public health experts have said.
Dr. Thomas Murray, an infectious disease pediatrician at Yale New Haven Children's Hospital, told TODAY that he thinks "we're getting to a point now where there are substantial benefits from socialization and getting out and spending time with people."
He stressed, though, that the safety of these interactions depends on the amount of virus circulating in your community and the precautions you take to "mitigate the risk of infection."
Start small with people you know
Dr. Derek Chu, a clinical scholar of medicine at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, who's studied the most effective ways to prevent COVID-19, said any number of people that state officials are allowing is "arbitrary."
So, for now, keep interactions small with close friends and family. If you're considering seeing multiple groups over a few days, decide based on the amount of disease in your area, Murray said, adding that it's safer if local case rates are steadily declining.
"Certainly the more people you come into contact with, the higher risk of transmission," he explained. "That risk has to be balanced with the benefit of those different groups that you're meeting with."
Addressing the question of "how big is too big" for group gatherings at this stage, Murray said it's hard to put an exact number on it.
"It depends on the behaviors of people you're meeting with," he said. "One person who's not been doing a great job of masking and social distancing ... is all it takes to infect an entire group."
Follow basic precautions
In addition to keeping interactions small, follow these measures, per Chu and Murray:
- Keep groups outside. If your gathering has to be indoors, open windows to allow airflow.
- Maintain 6 feet of distance as much as possible, even outdoors.
- Limit prolonged close contact, especially in enclosed areas.
- Wear masks, especially if you're indoors and unable to maintain 6 feet of distance. Masks are less critical if you're outdoors and social distancing.
- Practice good hand hygiene.
- Don't attend if you have a fever, respiratory symptoms or gastrointestinal symptoms that could be signs of COVID-19.
"Things like eating dinner in a small dining room with a large group of people where you can't wear a mask because you have to eat, I'd really try to avoid that," Murray said.
He added that he doesn't "endorse" hugging but understands that some people may want to take this risk. If you choose to hug someone, wash your hands before and after, and wear a mask.
Murray recommended contacting attendees before gatherings to get "a sense of how well people have been able to isolate ... If someone's been out in contact with people who might be infected without a mask, then that's certainly a higher level of risk," he said.
If the gathering is at your home, consider informing people ahead of time what precautions you want them to take at the event so there's "no surprises," Murray added.
When deciding whether to attend, make sure you'd be willing to contact everyone at the event, should you get sick afterward. And if that happens, actually do it.
Take extra care with kids and high-risk individuals
Interventions to keep group interactions safe are critical for older people and those with underlying conditions that put them at high-risk of severe illness from the coronavirus.
"That would be the one population I would think carefully about," Murray said. "Do that risk-benefit assessment before bringing them into a larger group because you really want to keep them safe."
For children older than 2, who can safely wear masks but often struggle to do so, especially for prolonged periods, Murray stressed the importance of being outside, where kids "can run around, be watched very carefully and not have prolonged contact."
He also recommended preventing kids from sharing toys and only bringing toys with nonporous surfaces so they can be easily wiped down.
"There's ... tremendous benefit in reconnecting with people (you) haven't seen in a while," Murray added. "I'm really in favor of beginning to reconnect, as long as it's done safely."