JUNE 4, 2020 — Your son’s friend has a birthday party coming up and your son really wants to go.
You’ve been invited to a neighborhood potluck for the Fourth of July. That’s 20 households up and down your street and everyone plans to share food and drinks.
You’ve seen an announcement for a fun run, a parade or a concert where hundreds may gather.
We’ve been hunkered down for months, and people are wanting to get together. Do you go ahead with that birthday party, neighborhood potluck, concert or fun run? And if you do, what can you do to reduce the chances of getting sick or spreading COVID-19 among the guests?
“The safest thing is for us to all be in a bubble and to not interact ever together, but that is also not how you live,” said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s Chief Medical Officer. “So what ways are we able to live and be meaningful and mindful, while minimizing the chances of making others sick?”
The state is reopening, but Zink reminds Alaskans that “open” doesn’t mean “over.” COVID-19, the virus that’s led to a worldwide pandemic, is not gone. It is still spreading from person to person in Alaska communities and will continue to do so if people don’t take steps to prevent transmission: keep distance from others, wear face coverings in public, wash hands and surfaces, and stay home when sick. Those steps should be taken if you attend gatherings of any size — even if those attending are your friends and family members who are outside your household or small social bubble.
Here’s why: Gatherings of all sizes increase the chances of spreading COVID-19, and those chances go up as the number of attendees go up. A recent summary by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discussed how several types of interactions in recent months led to COVID-19 spreading quickly. One of those interactions is attending large gatherings. The State of Alaska and CDC have provided guidance about organizing large events.
But smaller gatherings can spread illness, too. Just in the past week, a number of new COVID-19 infections have been connected to get-togethers and parties that took place in Alaska communities. In some cases, people came to the gatherings from other communities, even other states. Some people had close contact at these parties.
Leslie Felts is an Alaska public health nurse manager who is helping to trace possible contacts of people infected with COVID-19. She’s noted several types of interactions at these gatherings that can increase the chances of spreading infection: Some people stood near others and had lingering conversations. Some hugged or kissed each other. Some drove in the same car as others, lengthening close contact with people outside their household.
“People are social and they want to get together,” Zink said. “Gathering helps us feel hopeful and connected during a really hard time, but we have to do it as safely as possible. This is not the time to have close contact and face-to-face conversations with others at large or small get-togethers. It’s the time to be creative, to come up with new ways to see people and socialize but still keep distance from others.”
Creative approaches to encourage physical distancing might mean drawing chalk markings on streets, sidewalks and driveways to help people see what 6 feet of minimum distance looks like at gatherings. Check out this idea used at a San Francisco park to show spacing among people. Some venues have blocked off rows of seats between non-household groups to space people apart.
Zink, Felts and Alaska epidemiologists discussed gatherings and community events this week with Play Every Day.
What kind of get-togethers fall under gatherings and community events?
These get-togethers can range in size. They could include birthday parties, graduation celebrations, neighborhood block parties, weddings, funerals, and other get-togethers with family and friends. On the larger side, they could include parades, sports events and fun runs, fairs and concerts.
The State of Alaska recently published lessons learned and guidance for organizers planning large gatherings that include more than 250 people. This number includes all attendees during the entire course of the event, such as participants, spectators, players, performers, staff, vendors, volunteers, security, medical personnel and others.
Your family has been invited to a gathering. Should you go?
As Alaska reopens, your family can make a choice after considering a number of factors. Here are just a few questions to consider:
- Is the gathering inside or outside?
- How large is it, and will you be able to keep enough space between you and others?
- Have the other attendees been following the recommended precautions to prevent getting and spreading illness?
- Are attendees encouraged to wear face coverings and to stay home if feeling ill?
- If food and drink are served, are they being shared in a way that helps prevent the spread of infection? One example to prevent the spread of illness would be having one chosen cook at the event who wears a face covering and serves foods and drinks to everyone, limiting the number of people who touch the serving utensils. Or, people attending the event could be asked to bring their own food and drink and not share it with others.
- Will you be able to wash or sanitize your hands, and will hosts or organizers be cleaning and disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces like doorknobs, handles or tabletops?
Overall, outdoor gatherings typically have a lower risk of spreading illness due to the air flow and amount of open space for distance. But outdoor events still must offer other precautions in order to prevent spreading COVID-19. That includes giving people enough space to stay at least 6 feet from others, recommending or even providing face coverings when people may get closer than 6 feet, offering enough hand washing and sanitizing stations, cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and more.
How can you adjust your interactions with others at gatherings to prevent spreading illness?
Human interactions aren’t typically described using math, but Dr. Joe McLaughlin, Alaska’s state epidemiologist, laid out an equation for how these interactions can lead to spreading illness:
The likelihood of an interaction spreading illness is a function of distance and time.
When someone gets a confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, a public health nurse quickly reaches out to that person to find out with whom they had close contact. Distance is defined as close contact — being within 6 feet of someone. Time is typically important when it’s for 15 or more minutes, McLaughlin said. Again, distance and time.
But it doesn’t always look as simple as that, McLaughlin said. Consider that an infected person is at a gathering, and a number of people are in that same room. Someone may be farther away than 6 feet from the infected person, but in the same general area for an hour or more. That lengthy exposure could lead to spreading infection to others in the area. Or, you might be within 6 feet of an infected person for just a few seconds — but during that time the infected person sneezes or coughs into your face. The time part of that equation is now significantly shorter, but that one sneeze or cough may be enough to spread the virus.
Given all of that, McLaughlin, Felts and others recommended adjusting your interactions at gatherings to prevent spreading illness:
- Keep a 6-foot distance from others who are not part of your household or small social bubble — even if they are good friends or family members.
- Don’t share cars on the way to or from gatherings and don’t linger within 6 feet of others at the gathering.
- Don’t stay in one place for long. Moving around encourages air flow around you and can help prevent spreading the virus. Gathering outside — but still at a distance — is usually safer than spending time with others in an enclosed space.
- Bring your own chairs, plates, silverware, glasses, food, drinks and hand sanitizer.
- Wash or sanitize your hands often.
- Stay home if you have any symptoms of COVID-19 and encourage others to do the same. Possible symptoms include fever, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, new loss of taste or smell, and other symptoms listed on this CDC website.
Should you wear face coverings at parties and gatherings?
Wear a face covering over your nose and mouth when you are within 6 feet of “others.” In this case, “others” includes people who don’t live in your household or are not part of your small, trusted social bubble. At the end of this Q and A, you’ll find a reminder about the social bubble concept for Alaska.
You typically come within 6 feet of others when you’re talking to people, receiving or giving food and drinks, or standing in lines. COVID-19 can be a sneaky virus, infecting some people without causing symptoms. Those infected people can spread the virus through their respiratory droplets without even realizing they have COVID-19. Infected people wearing face coverings are less likely to spread the virus to others. Healthy people wearing face coverings are less likely to catch the virus from others. If everyone who is able to wear a face covering does so when they’re in close contact with others, the possibility of COVID-19 spreading is greatly reduced. Face coverings should not be used by children under 2 or those who would have difficulty breathing with a covering in place.
It’s your nephew’s birthday and you want to show that you love him. You want to congratulate the bride. Can you give them a hug, kiss or handshake at these gatherings?
Right now, the best way to show others you care about them is to give them space instead of giving them a hug, kiss or handshake. Again, some people have COVID-19 with no symptoms or minor symptoms, so they don’t realize they’re sick. If they hug or have close contact with others, they could spread a virus they don’t know they have. No one wants to unintentionally make a friend or loved one sick.
Should you attend a get-together or community event if you have higher chances of serious illness related to COVID-19?
People in higher-risk groups should talk with their health care provider about attending get-togethers and large events. That includes people who are 65 or older and those living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities. It also includes people who have ongoing health problems, such as heart and lung conditions, asthma, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, cancer, severe obesity and other conditions that may weaken the immune system.
Slightly expanding your social bubble is a way to stay connected without gatherings. What’s the safest way to create that trusted bubble?
Alaska families, individuals and couples may be feeling lonely and needing more social contact with others right now. Those households can consider adding one other trusted household to their social bubble. If you do choose to expand your bubble, Zink advises keeping that bubble small with the same members over time. She strongly cautions against mixing bubbles. Creating a slightly larger bubble requires a special agreement between households. Members of this new bubble must agree not to join another bubble, because if one person in your group gets the virus, it will likely infect others, too. Everyone within the bubble must agree to follow health and safety precautions, like minimizing interactions outside their bubble and staying at least 6 feet away from people outside the bubble. This concept is further explained in this recent Play Every Day blog.