Are Any Gatherings Actually Safe?

All around the country, stores are opening, restaurants are welcoming diners, and people are gathering. After so many months of being shut in, people are craving human contact. Unfortunately, steps towards reopening are often met with a spike in COVID cases.

Do we need to go back to a strict shutdown? 

Certainly, a strict shutdown would be the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID.  However, restlessness, the political climate, and concerns about the economy make that an unlikely option. That means that the responsibility to decide what is safe and what is not safe largely relies on us as individuals.  Fortunately, the past few months have given us some indication of the risk level for different types of gatherings so we can make more informed decisions.

Dr. William Miller, an epidemiologist at Ohio State University recommends this basic rule: The more time you spend and the closer in space you are to any infected people, the higher your risk. Interacting with more people raises your risk, and indoor places are riskier than outdoors.

So, what does that mean in practical terms? Can you have outdoor gatherings with friends? Go out to dinner with family?  Let’s take a look at the risk factor for some common summer gatherings.


As tired as we’ve become of cooking all our own meals, the fact is, indoor dining is a high risk activity. Nearly two months after Georgia became the first state to allow indoor dining, coronavirus cases started trending upwards. On June 12, Texas began operating restaurants at up to 75 percent capacity and their cases soared to nearly 120,000. Since the reopenings began, restaurants in Atlanta, Dallas, Austin, and other cities have been forced to shut down again as employees test positive for COVID-19.

How to reduce risk: Take-out is a relatively low-risk way to skip cooking and enjoy your favorite restaurant foods. Outdoor dining carries a lower risk than indoor, but precautions do need to be taken.  Here are some things to look for when deciding if outdoor dining is safe:

  • All of the chairs (not just the tables) are at least 6 feet apart.
  • The restaurant has left at least 4 feet of room on the sidewalk for those in wheelchairs, and other pedestrians.
  • Dining is set up in a closed-off street (pedestrian traffic will be no issue).
  • Your server is wearing a protective face mask and gloves, changing them often.
  • Tables have been sanitized.

If you do choose to take the risk of eating indoors at a restaurant, a bigger, well-ventilated restaurant with strict limits on the number of people working and the number of people it serves will be safest.

Beaches And Pools

While not completely free of risk, beaches and pools are a relatively safe way to enjoy the summer.  Transmission rate for outdoor activities is generally low and, according to the CDC, there’s no evidence that the coronavirus can spread through water.

How to reduce risk: While the beach itself isn’t much of a risk, crowds are always something to be cautious of. Only go to beaches where you can maintain at least a 6-foot distance from other visitors. If you decide to go with other people, keep sufficient space between you, and don’t share food or drinks.  Wearing a mask when you’re not in the water will provide an extra measure of safety.

Backyard Parties

Backyard gatherings involve so many factors that it’s difficult to assign them a concrete risk value.

Some factors to consider:

  • How many people will be there? Lower numbers are always safer.
  • Can you maintain distance? Most studies show that standing at least 6 feet apart lowers your risk.
  • Will people be wearing masks? Masks significantly reduce the rate of transmission.
  • Will you be able to use a bathroom safely? Going indoors to use the bathroom increases your risk.
  • Will there be alcohol? Drinking blurs people’s judgment and may lead to more risky behavior.
  • How will the food be served? Don’t share utensils. Bring your own food to be extra safe.

Indoor Bar Or Nightclub

The combination of crowds and drinking makes any kind of bar or nightclub extremely high risk. In fact, bars are one of the most common sources of coronavirus outbreaks. In Louisiana, at least 100 people tested positive for COVID after visiting bars, in Idaho, health officials shut down bars in Ada County after reporting clusters of infections, and, all over Florida bars have been the sources of large outbreaks. 

How to reduce risk: Even limited capacity bars are not safe right now.  Unfortunately, there are currently just no safe ways to go to bars or nightclubs.

Indoor Get-Togethers

While it may be tempting to have a few friends over after so many months of isolation, the fact is, it just isn’t safe. Many outbreaks around the country have been traced back to indoor gatherings.

How to reduce risk: Limiting gatherings to friends or family members who have practiced safe social distancing and mask-wearing can help reduce risk. But, for indoor gatherings with food and drink, mask-wearing is almost impossible.

Whatever gatherings you choose to attend this summer, remember that there is still a lot we don’t know about this virus. Even if you consider yourself to be low risk, it’s wise to be informed and cautious in order to keep yourself, your family, and your community members healthy.

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