Welcome to the Great Pandemic In-Between.
Fully vaccinated adults are throwing some of their first (indoor) dinner parties in ages, with the biggest anxiety being whether anyone can remember how to cook for a crowd. But we’re not totally in the clear yet. As of this writing, only 48 percent of the U.S. population has gotten at least one shot. And with vaccination rates dropping, the country still isn’t close to the levels of resistance—70 to 90 percent of the total population—public health experts say we need to stamp out the virus and reach herd immunity. In just mid-May, the FDA authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine for children as young as 12 years old; it’s not (yet) available for younger kids. And it seems like the CDC changes its mask guidance every week. Things are still complicated.
In this hopeful but trepidatious period of partial vaccination rates, we turned to some experts to learn how to dinner party again safely: Adam Friedlander, M.D., director of pediatric emergency medicine at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, and Linsey Marr, Ph.D., Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech and a leading expert on airborne transmission of viruses.
Do I need to worry about sharing serving spoons or pitchers?
That’s a big, fat unequivocal no! In the early days of the pandemic, Friedlander says, a study on cruise ships came out showing that they found fragments of viral RNA on surfaces weeks later, freaking people out, but we’ve known for a long time that COVID is a respiratory virus transmitted by sharing air not surfaces.
“Early on we all did a lot of things that were over the top, like wiping down groceries, and a lot of that stuff has persisted,” Friedlander says. “We have pretty good data. You don't get COVID from your groceries. You don't get it from takeout food. You don't get it from pizza boxes.”
That said, even if you can’t get COVID from surfaces, you could still get (or give someone else) a regular ol’ GI bug. As long as people are washing their hands after they go to the bathroom or touch their face, Friedlander says, they’re clear to share serving utensils—just like before.
Are outdoor dinner parties completely safe?
Not quite. “The only type of transmission that occurs outdoors that we're aware of is people involved in face-to-face conversations,” Marr says. “If there are two unvaccinated people standing there unmasked talking together for several minutes or more, you could have transmission.” In other words, if you’re laughing and closely chatting late into the night, as so often happens at a wine-soaked dinner party, guests can still catch COVID if they’re unvaccinated.
Outdoor parties are, of course, safer than a windowless family dining room. “The risk is still greatly reduced outdoors, so if you have unvaccinated people coming, outdoors is definitely your best option,” Marr says. “Outdoors is fine for [unvaccinated] kids. Just keep them out of each other’s faces if they're unmasked.”
You could spread out the little ones while they’re eating and then have them mask up again to play. “It's true that the typical cloth mask is not as good as an N95, but it still offers better protection than nothing,” says Marr, who has studied mask effectiveness. “For the kids, if they are both wearing masks, that's a big improvement over just one of them wearing a mask. You definitely want the best mask you can get in terms of filtration ability and fit, while still easily breathable.”
Friedlander adds that you shouldn’t try to cheat the general spirit of the great outdoors. Tents, pavilions, and other enclosed structures inhibit airflow. “You could be indoors in an extremely well-ventilated space and it's probably safer than being inside an open-air tent on a windless day,” he says. If you want to entertain outdoors with unvaccinated people from other households, you’ll still need to practice social distancing, like spacing seating wide apart on long picnic tables and encouraging guests to circulate and smaller children to mask if they’re going to be playing together.
And what about indoor dinner parties with kids or vaccinated adults who are immunocompromised?
It depends on your risk tolerance. “I would still discourage having kids unmasked indoors together,” Marr says. But even with the new, more-transmissible variants, children still have a very low risk of severe outcomes from COVID. In most cases, notes Marr, the symptoms are similar to a cold or flu. “If you're the type of parent who is okay with their kid getting sick, your kid is healthy, and you think there's a benefit from the kids being able to hang out together without masks, then I would not criticize that decision.”
For his own family, Friedlander is playing it safe. “We wouldn't expose our unvaccinated kids to other unvaccinated people,” he says. “I think that is still dangerous.”
Even vaccinated adults with underlying conditions still have risk in exposure to other unvaccinated people. “We're beginning to hear case reports about people who have been vaccinated still requiring hospitalization. By and large those people are elderly or have some other risk factor, like an organ transplant,” Friedlander says. “For those people, that small risk is suddenly a lot scarier.” If you want unvaccinated grandkids to be there for Grandpa’s 92nd birthday, consider holding the bash outdoors and/or having the kids wear masks.
But if you’re healthy and vaccinated, can you go anywhere?
Both Marr and Friedlander say that if the rest of the guests are vaccinated, it’s fine to have, for example, one unvaccinated person at an indoor dinner party. But it starts to get dicier with larger groups and rates of transmission. “I would say we're still not at a point where we have enough community vaccination,” Friedlander says, “where you can [responsibly] eat indoors with a crowd of unvaccinated people because you're vaccinated and think you're safe.”
The bottom line
“In general, healthy, vaccinated people can gather safely indoors,” Friedlander says. “The fact of the matter is people who are vaccinated have a very, very low risk of getting sick themselves and a very low risk of asymptomatic transmission as well.”
Once unvaccinated children or people with risk factors are added to the guest list, consider more precautions for better airflow.
In the end, the vaccine is the ticket to dinner parties. “The vaccines are really powerful and they work,” Marr says. “We should do everything we can to convince as many people as we can to get vaccinated.” And if free beer and Krispy Kreme doughnuts are boosting vaccination rates in some places, perhaps an invite to dig into your famous smoked ribs or strawberry pie will get the last of your loved ones on board.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious