A home is adorned with patriotic decorations in honor of Memorial Day, Friday, May 22, 2020, in Boonton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
May 26, 2020
While the choice to get out this Memorial Day is ultimately a calculated personal risk, many are hoping to find a way to see friends and family for the first time in months.
Even as cases begin to decline nationally and pharmaceutical companies offer optimistic updates on the development of drug treatments for COVID-19, public health officials have been firm in their insistence that now is not the time to return to our normal lives.
At the same time, there is growing scientific evidence that outdoor, socially distanced interaction is largely safe, and with that has come a new set of best practices to keep in mind if you're going to host or attend a small social gathering for the holiday.
Before you think about which stylish protective gear you're wearing to your next backyard shindig though, it's best to first look at your particular state's coronavirus guidelines, according to Dr. Jen Caudle, a family physician in Philadelphia and professor at the Rowan University-School of Osteopathic Medicine.
"My first piece of advice is you have to follow the guidelines set forth by your state and local governments because every state and every region has different requirements for what you are and are not allowed to do during this time," Caudle told Cheddar. "What you're doing in an East Coast city might be very different from what you're supposed to be doing in a West Coast town."
States such as Illinois, Michigan, and New York have all given the go-ahead for small gatherings of 10 or fewer people, an official stamp of approval on a behavior that's been trending upwards since the beginning of May, according to a recent Gallup poll.
In line with the easing restrictions, states have also shut down public streets for additional space, allowed restaurants to resume outdoor seating, and partially reopened public beaches.
But just because you can, doesn't mean you should; there are also personal risk factors to consider. If you or someone in your immediate domestic bubble is vulnerable to the virus, then your mental calculus might be very different.
"Just because things are opening up and you may be allowed to do certain things, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's right for you," Caudle said. "Consider your own risk and the risk of the people around you."
If you do feel relatively comfortable meeting in a small group, experts agree the most important safety measures remain keeping six-feet apart and staying away from enclosed spaces.
Multiple studies, including from the CDC, have found that indoor, unventilated spaces are the most likely to spread the infection.
Of course, it's not just how you behave in groups. It's who's in them.
"I look at risk in terms of bubbles or layers," said Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, the former Illinois health commissioner and a former senior medical officer at the CDC. "You've got your own bubble, which is your own family. Then you've got your extended family. Then you've got friends and your friends of friends. The further you get out into those concentric bubbles, the more your risk is."
Hasbrouck said this idea can help inform how you arrange a space for guests. Keeping different groups physically separated based on who they have been in contact with or if they are more vulnerable than others helps avoid cross-contamination.
He added that risk is also cumulative. The more time you spend in a given space with a group of people, the more your risk increases. So keeping in mind how long you gather helps as well.
When it comes to sharing food with other people — arguably an inevitability on this holiday known for backyard grilling — experts advise a BYO approach. But if mom's potato salad is simply too tempting, then luckily science is still on our side.
"We don't have any data that food is a transmission route for SARS-CoV-2," said Benjamin Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University.
He said the virus could technically land on a piece of food, as someone coughs, breathes heavily, or talks loudly near you, but it's not likely to survive the trip into your digestive system.
Stomach acid, it turns out, is the best disinfectant of all, says Chapman, and nobody has to inject it into themselves to get the benefit.
As for shared dishware, serving spoons, and other common kitchen equipment, experts advise avoiding them as much possible by offering disposable plates and utensils or serving food directly onto a plate. They also advise against shared bowls of chips or other snacks, despite our trusty stomachs.
Despite these best practices, however, Chapman said the scientific consensus is becoming more and more clear that coronavirus does not transfer well on surfaces. Indeed, the CDC updated its transmission facts this week to clarify that even high-touch surfaces or objects do not easily spread the virus.
He added that avoiding long food lines and gathering around the table are better precautions, because ultimately your greatest risk factor is another person. For everything else, he said, liberal use of hand sanitizer and handwashing is still your best bet.
An abundance of caution might be a good way to start what might be your first foray into social interaction since quarantine began.
Hasbrouck said the long-term social impact of letting loose this weekend is hard to predict but that people could end up responding in very different ways.
"For some people, they'll say 'I had this exposure. I was okay. My family was okay. I lived through it. Maybe I'm overdoing it,'" he said. "Then I think they'll be another camp that will say 'I was able to expose myself to some risks and come out of it safely, and I did that because I was cautious.'"