Well, folks, many of us have been staying at home for a while now, and you’re probably wondering when you can see friends and family for fun. Various states are attempting to relax lockdown measures, nicer weather is arriving, and it’s only normal to miss your loved ones hard. It might be tempting to expand your in-person interactions outside of your immediate household, even though the new coronavirus pandemic rages on. How risky is it really to start socializing for non-essential reasons with the people you love? (“Non-essential” means we’re not talking about protests against police brutality.)
In mid-April, the White House released guidelines for reopening the U.S., outlining a phased process that states like Washington are modeling. The document suggests that before even considering these phases, states should have a declining rate of virus transmission over two weeks, enough personal protective equipment (PPE), enough ICU capacity if there’s another uptick in cases, and efficient screening, testing, and contact tracing abilities, especially in places that serve vulnerable populations. Again, this should all be before they consider entering Phase One, which includes some reopening of workplaces but still recommends against non-essential travel for business, for instance. As for gatherings, Phase One limits get-togethers to under 10 people if social distancing can’t be guaranteed.
This is perhaps why it’s surprising and somewhat alarming to see many states open up that haven’t met those basic targets. For example, after Texas started relaxing their stay-at-home order in early May, the Texas Tribune reported that the state reported 1,801 new COVID-19 cases on May 16, its highest one-day total since the pandemic started. After starting to open up, Arizona reported 581 emergency room visits for people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 on May 23, their highest recorded number so far, according to AZ Central. This isn’t to say we can totally attribute these spikes to reopening—things like better testing and more thorough data collection could also be a factor. But it does indicate that many states are far from controlling the spread of this disease, even as they open up.
With that said, most “opening up” refers to businesses, not your social life. Which might leave you wondering: If businesses are opening, does that mean you can start to see your family and friends—the ones you don’t live with—again? I wish it were that cut and dry.
When restrictions ease, should you make plans to see friends and family right away?
At the very least, you should continue to follow your state and local guidance, like limits on the number of people who can gather in one spot. Beyond that, the decision about how you move forward in our new normal is really going to be a personal one, Amesh Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, tells SELF. “The virus hasn’t changed biologically. Social distancing has eased because hospital capacity is no longer an issue in most parts of the country,” he explains. “It doesn’t mean that you’re not at risk for contracting it.”
You’ll have to figure out how much risk you’re willing to encounter, which will be based on both your psychological tolerance and you and your loved ones’ risk of severe illness. If you’re older or have a high-risk health condition, even the White House guidelines recommend that you continue to shelter in place until Phase Three of reopening, which would involve your state meeting all of the prerequisite goalposts several times over and not showing any signs of another uptick in cases. Beyond that, you also need to consider the heightened risks you and your loved ones could pose to other people by extension, like essential employees who are working as you buy your groceries, who may be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications or live with someone who is, etc. Finally, keep in mind that estimating the risks involved here is really hard to do when we don’t even know enough about the virus we’re trying to avoid.
What do health experts think of expanding our social circles?
SELF reached out to a few health experts to understand how they’re thinking of socializing as we head into the new normal of this pandemic. In addition to Dr. Adalja, we spoke with Eleanor J. Murray, Sc.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health, Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health, and Brandon Brown, M.P.H., Ph.D., an epidemiologist and associate professor in the Department of Social Medicine, Population, and Public Health at the University of California, Riverside. (Responses have been edited for clarity and length.)