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Epidemiologists Share Advice For Anyone Dreaming Of A 4th Of July Party

4th of July weekend is upon us. The nation longs for a stress release and the chance to connect in person. They want to sip beers and eat barbecue. But we are also in the grips of a pandemic, with only two states reporting a decline in cases. And while cities, parks, and public spaces are continuing to reopen, the risk of infection is not necessarily lower by any means. The onus has simply shifted: Governments seem to be trusting their citizens to make decisions that will ensure their safety and the safety of others. (Whether or not we, the people, can manage that responsibility is very much up for debate.)

A quick look at Google Trends makes it clear that for better or worse backyard parties are going to take place across the country this weekend. Some people will do so in creative thoughtful ways — designing small gatherings with social distancing in mind, requiring masks, taking temperatures at the door, setting up sanitization stations, etc. Others will simply throw caution to the wind (please don’t do this. Please.).

If you’re invited to one of these parties, you’ll have to consider the risks, the potential for exposure, the approach that the hosts are taking, and the current status of the virus in your city or county. It’s a lot. To help you manage it all, we reached out to experts in the field of epidemiology to unpack the issues at stake.

Before we get to that, the CDC has a clear set of guidelines if you plan to either host a backyard gathering or plan to attend one. The bullet points are:

  • Remind guests to stay home if they are sick.
  • Encourage social distancing.
  • Wear cloth face coverings.
  • Clean hands often.
  • Limit the number of people handling or serving food.
  • Limit contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items.

That’s a strong start — and you can read the details here — but we found that three Ph.D. epidemiologists all working, teaching, and researching exactly these types of situations were able to add significant context to the CDC’s guidelines. Our panel is:

We kept this as straightforward as possible and got right to the point. Hopefully, these answers will help you make a more informed decision on whether or not to stay home this weekend.

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Even if you’re wearing a mask and use proper hygiene protocols plus social distancing, is hosting a backyard BBQ worth the risk?

Prof. Martine El Bejjani: If precaution measures are followed religiously, and you keep your gathering to your closest people (people who you know have been careful and taking precautions during this pandemic), then a small gathering can be manageable. It won’t be like the good old times, though. It will require more vigilance about touching, getting your own food, and serving yourself after hand washing and hygiene, and keeping your distance.

Again, any gathering is risky, and it depends on how much the infection is spreading where you are, and how much you can control the risk you are getting yourself into.

Prof. Steve Mooney: I think so, though I would encourage people to move away from each other when eating anything. Most of us aren’t infected and socializing is really important.

But also: the size of the party matters — there’s a huge difference between a BBQ in a big backyard with five people I know and trust to notify me as soon as possible if they develop symptoms and a BBQ with 25 people who I don’t know in a small space.

Prof. Marilyn Tseng: If you’re wearing a mask and using proper hygiene protocols (handwashing, not touching your face, etc.), and maintaining six-foot distance from all others, then theoretically a backyard BBQ should be fine. I also believe strongly in the importance of getting together with others. Realistically, though, it’s hard to keep to those protocols. Backyard BBQs mean having to take off the mask to eat while getting your hands near your face, and then it becomes really easy to ease up on the other requirements. Unfortunately, some portion of the rise in cases recently is due to people getting together.

So I guess I’d say it’s safer not to unless you are incredibly vigilant about staying apart from other people, maybe even bringing your own plates and eating implements to minimize physical contact.

How close do you think some states are to another shut down now that there’s a real spike occurring?

Prof. Martine El Bejjani: It is difficult to say. With the absence of a vaccine, shut-downs are one of the very few tools we have to stop dangerous spikes and their consequences. We just have to be prepared for the potential occurrence of such scenarios, and adjust to the notion that we will have to deal with the many changes that occurred in our daily lives and having to take measures when stepping out for a while. And the more we invest in the small changes (wearing masks, hand and face hygiene, and social distancing) the better our chances of not having to endure the larger-scale ones like a shut-down are.

Prof. Steve Mooney: Based on what I’ve seen, I really hope all the states seeing upticks strongly consider why those upticks are occurring and act to intervene. That doesn’t necessarily mean fully shutting back down but maybe reconsidering the force of language around masks, or the size of allowable indoor gatherings, or whatever else seems like the most effective interventions based on the available data.

For example, it’s not out of the question that, say, reopening hair salons & barber shops is less of a problem than reopening dentist’s offices. If the data backs that up, I’d hope states take that into account when deciding how to react to a spike.

Prof. Marilyn Tseng: At this point, we’re already seeing some states shutting down again to some extent in response to the rise in cases.

What do you think people are failing to understand about gathering in public places in relation to the spread of COVID? Is it really just as mask issue or is it more of a comprehension issue?

Prof. Martine El Bejjani: I see it as a mix of both and that maybe both have the same root — that is, a difficulty to accept that this is a long marathon and to accept this new normal and reality. This is more challenging and restrictive than our pre-COVID way of being in public. So, we see in different contexts different manifestations of it, some are more “innocent” with people being fed-up and craving a little letting go and escaping, and some are more on the misinformation, irresponsible defiance, denial, or unnecessary risk end.

The reality is that we sadly currently cannot escape in public gatherings and that we are in the sphere of prevention, which is in itself a sometimes difficult concept (we can think of dieting or exercising or restrictions/avoidance of certain foods/consumption, and how difficult that can be sometimes). Maybe one way is to find a balance between letting go in safer spaces — on a hike, in nature, at home doing something we love — and understanding and accepting that public gatherings carry a risk and a responsibility to ourselves and others.

Prof. Steve Mooney: Masks seem like the biggest issue right now, for sure. But the deeper issue is that we’re all still learning about modes of transmission risk. We have to make decisions based on what we know, but we also need to make sure we’re studying the ongoing outbreak. We might learn that people shed more virus at certain phases of the disease than others, say, and that would be really important for understanding how public gatherings affect spread.

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What would it take for you to feel comfortable to be in a crowded place (park, bar, movie theater) again?

Prof. Martine El Bejjani: I don’t think I feel or will be in the near future comfortable in a crowded place. I am comfortable in finding remote spots in a park or on the beach — again with the usual and up-scaled precautions — and meeting friends and family who I know have been careful and will be careful too when we meet in uncrowded locations.

Prof. Steve Mooney: I think we’d need the disease to be at a much lower prevalence. But also: we’d need competent and trust-inspiring leadership at the highest levels of government.

I’d be really comfortable being in a crowded place in New Zealand right now. Florida, less so. Even if the prevalence drops, I’d feel a lot less comfortable coming back to crowded places knowing that leadership doesn’t respect expertise or knowledge of disease control.

Prof. Marilyn Tseng: Honestly, it’s hard for me to see myself in a crowded place in the near future, at least indoors. Some things that will help me feel comfortable are:

  • A redesign of public spaces to provide more space — less crowding — and better ventilation.
  • A local public health system that is on top of surveillance, testing, and contact tracing. Because it’s important to know that we have a good handle on the level of risk in the community and to know that we can detect a rise in cases when it’s happening.
  • A research-based understanding of environmental and host factors that will contribute to or lessen transmission and infection, so we can answer questions about the effect on risk of, say, time spent sitting indoors with others in public or having windows open vs. AC.
  • A vaccine that is proven to be safe and at least as effective as the flu vaccine.
  • Continued investment in our public health infrastructure so that we’re not as unprepared for the next new infectious agent.

All of this also assumes being in a community that is on board with following these recommendations, and transparency throughout the process by local, state, and national authorities.

Would you recommend people getting together at all, even in a backyard setting?

Prof. Martine El Bejjani: If it’s a small gathering and spread in the community has been low and you know the people who will be there and you know they have been cautious and you know that you and them will respect preventive measures, then people can plan a safe get-together outdoors.

There are a lot of “ifs” there and a whole new form of get-together, but it is where we are.

Prof. Steve Mooney: I would recommend people get together, with masks and with distance. Social interaction is important and, as humans, we can’t just live without it forever. It’s extremely important to be safe about getting together, of course, for both for the personal and for the societal consequences of contagion risk. But in places where disease prevalence is low, small distanced outdoor get-togethers with everyone masked seem like a safe enough thing.

I started dating someone shortly before the pandemic hit, and here’s something I wrote to a friend about how it feels sometimes: I think I read somewhere that opioids address pain by making you not care about the pain (unlike ibuprofen or other NSAIDs that make you not feel the pain in the first place). I feel like that’s what being near or touching someone is like when the world is awful. It’s not that the world is any less awful. It’s just that it doesn’t hurt as much right then, and that’s okay.
Obviously, this is personal. But I think it’s very important to my well-being. When I’ve spent the night at my partner’s house, all challenges the next day seem more approachable. We humans need contact. The pandemic just means we need to be cautious and limit the forms of contact to things that are safe.

Prof. Marilyn Tseng: This is a tough one, but my answer wouldn’t be much different from what I wrote for your social gathering question above. Getting together is important! I can’t overstate how important it is for people to stay connected. If people are satisfied with FaceTime or Zoom, that’s great, but I certainly understand that we all want or even need to see and connect with family and friends in person.

So I would emphasize that a safe get-together is possible, but “safe” requires adhering to recommended distances and wearing face coverings if indoors. The hug is so tempting, but we should keep in mind that an unknown but substantial proportion of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic. Any decision to break rules should factor in:

  1. Your level of certainty that you are not unknowingly carrying the virus (so you don’t unknowingly transmit it to your family and friends).
  2. Your level of certainty that if someone at the party unknowingly transmits the virus to you, that you won’t unknowingly also spread it further.
  3. The stakes involved if you are potentially infected at the get-together — for example, stakes might be higher if you’re at higher risk for severe disease (older or with other health conditions), or if you’re a single parent with kids who depend on you to bring home food and a paycheck, or if you’re in a profession that involves close contact with others.
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