5 Ways to Socialize Safely This Summer
With COVID still casting a long (but shrinking!) shadow, here’s how to enjoy a mask-free world safely.
This summer is going to look different from last year, mostly in a good way. We’re ready to spend a little extra time outside, with friends and family, and indulging in honest-to-goodness fun (remember that?). Your guide to a healthy, happy summer starts here.
Summer is here and many in the U.S. are breathing a mask-free sigh of relief. Like a lot of people, you may be setting these next few months up to be social ones, full of celebrations, indoors and out, after a long year of isolation, distancing, and masking.
By now, there’s a good chance you’ve been vaccinated. But nevertheless, what happens next is a big unknown: How long will immunity last? Can a vaccinated person unwittingly transmit the virus to an unvaccinated one? What if you’re part of the 10% of the population that doesn’t get immunity from the vaccine? And given all this, how do you partake in the mask-free festivities without putting yourself at risk?
“It’s not as if the population has been vaccinated and all of a sudden there’s no chance that we can see transmission of COVID-19,” says Shira Shafir, Ph.D., M.P.H., an infectious diseases epidemiologist at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in Los Angeles. And here is the point that hits home for those living with chronic conditions: “People who have immune-compromising conditions may be less likely, even when they are fully vaccinated, to mount full immunity,” Shafir adds.
“It is possible to be vaccinated and to have a reduced response to the vaccine; in which case those individuals should continue with all safety measures,” agrees Vivek Cherian, M.D., an internal medicine physician affiliated with the University of Maryland Medical System in Baltimore.
Still, everything in life has some risk (see: crossing the street), so the key to socializing is figuring out how to find a balance between safety and fun (remember that?). This summer, instead of diving straight into the pool’s deep end, think of it as dipping your toes in its shallow water. Need help? Follow our new rules for socializing to get your season off safely.
1. Know Your Risk for Severe Disease
“There are many medical conditions, such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes that predispose you to a more severe expression of COVID. In these circumstances, if you are vaccinated, you do not have to follow any additional safety measures,” Dr. Cherian says. But a few studies have raised questions about vaccine effectiveness for people with other conditions like rheumatic and respiratory diseases and autoimmune disorders.
Talk with your healthcare provider about how your condition might place you at higher risk for developing complications from COVID-19, and whether this is still a concern after vaccination. Understanding your individual risk based on your health will help dictate what if any precautions you should take when socializing with others.
2. Assess the Situation
If you are a healthy 30-something who is fully vaccinated, go ahead and hug your friends and have indoor mask-less gatherings with other vaccinated friends. But if you’re someone who is at high risk for severe COVID-19 disease—a.k.a. someone with high blood pressure, cancer, or a compromised immune system for other reasons, it’s wise to be a little more circumspect, particularly if you’re unsure of the vaccination status of those around you, Shafir says.
Simply, not all situations are the same. Going to a friend’s backyard BBQ is not the same as attending an indoor concert where you’ll be singing along with hundreds of other people, or going to an indoor spin class where you’re elbow to elbow with the next biker.
When you are trying to determine what safety measures to take in public spaces, Shafir suggests assessing the situation in these terms: what’s the location, can I social distance, and do I know the people around me and their vaccination status. For instance:
If you're going to be outdoors and you know people's vaccination status, the risk is so low that it’s probably safe not to mask up.
If you are outdoors, but you don't know the vaccination status of others, it’s probably a good idea to mask up.
If you're indoors, and you're going to be very close, and you don't know the vaccination status of the people around you, it’s probably a good idea to mask up!
If you are indoors, and you know that everybody is vaccinated, mask if you would feel more comfortable doing so.
3. Head Outdoors
One fact has been steadfast this year, and that’s being together outside is better than doing so inside. So it’s not surprising that the first relaxing of mask guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that fully vaccinated individuals do not need to wear masks outdoors.
While they recently added indoors to their guidelines as well, “it gives us an indication that it is generally safer to be outdoors, because of unlimited opportunity for air exchange,” Shafir says. “Summer's coming, nice weather's coming—gathering outdoors mask-free is a pretty good option.”
4. You Do You
“The most important thing is to honor your own risk tolerance,” Dr. Cherian says. “For example, an otherwise healthy patient who is asthmatic and feels especially uncomfortable dismissing mask use, should honor their reservations and continue on with masks.” (Bonus: New research shows a drop in asthma ER trips in the last year, likely due to people with asthma filtering air particles with their COVID masks.)
In other words, do whatever you feel comfortable doing, as long as what you feel comfortable doing is more stringent than the current public health guidelines.
5. Maintain the Healthy Habits of the Past Year
If you ever needed a refresher course in the tenets of preventive public health measures like handwashing, cleaning, and disinfecting surfaces, and using tissues to cover coughs and sneezes, the past year has drilled it into your head for good. Just because cases of COVID have dropped dramatically doesn’t mean we should stop being vigilant about these habits. Soap, warm water, and a little disinfectant will go a long way to helping diminish the spread of new viruses, whether it is the seasonal flu or the next coronavirus. Not to mention, they do a great job of getting that sticky BBQ sauce off your hands! Summer, here we come.
Risk Assessment: Georgia Institute of Technology. (2020.) "COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool." https://covid19risk.biosci.gatech.edu/
Head Outdoors: CDC. (2021.) "Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People." https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/fully-vaccinated-guidance.html