A Guide to Social Gatherings After COVID-19

What does the return to in-person socializing look like for you?

illustration of barbecue

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Long gone are the days of showing up to a friend’s house uninvited or attending a crowded concert unmasked. But with more and more Americans getting vaccinated, we can start making plans again. 

Still, determining which gatherings to attend and with whom can be complicated. There are many things we still don’t know and we’re nowhere near a COVID-free world, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start gathering again. You just need to understand how to do so safely. 

We’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to attending and hosting events now and in the foreseeable future. 

Consult the Guidelines

The data is changing every day. When making plans of any kind, make sure you’re complying with the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and paying attention to the COVID-19 cases in your location. 

As of spring 2021, the CDC has stated that the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is extremely high in the United States and based on this information, they recommend staying home as much as possible and avoiding large gatherings. You can still gather, but you need to do so safely.

Chris Thompson, PhD, an associate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland, believes one of the reasons COVID-19 cases are increasing is that we’re failing to follow guidelines about masking, social distancing, hand washing, testing, and staying home if sick. 

Chris Thompson, PhD

Unless we are able to alter our behaviors to follow the guidelines, this pandemic is going to continue for quite some time. As weather warms up, as more states open up, and as variants gain more and more traction, we must be vigilant about wearing our masks in public and wearing them correctly.

— Chris Thompson, PhD

We know certain gatherings are more problematic than others. Karaoke bars, for instance, are more problematic than parks. We know smaller gatherings are better than larger gatherings and the safest gatherings are outside, physically distanced, and masked.

Before attending an event, you’ll want to consider the following questions:

  • How many cases exist in your local community and state?
  • Is travel required to attend?
  • Will it be an indoor or outdoor gathering? 
  • What is the length of the event?
  • How many people are attending and are they all vaccinated?
  • What type of gathering is it?
  • How comfortable are you with this type of gathering?

States are opening up at different rates and this should be taken into account when determining which social gatherings to attend or host. While some states are allowing businesses, restaurants, and event spaces to open at a capacity of 50% or higher, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe to gather. Each state is dealing with different case numbers and guidelines.

“They’re different worlds,” says Michelle Ogunwole, MD, a physician and researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Be extra careful in understanding the community you’re in, what the local policies are, and how they’re being reinforced around distancing and masking.” 

The inconsistencies and ongoing changes across the country can be frustrating, especially for those planning significant events like reunions, graduations, or weddings, but staying updated on your state’s guidelines in conjunction with CDC guidelines is the best way to ensure the safety of all in attendance. 

Evaluate Risk

Social gatherings aren’t risk-free by their very nature. This is just the reality of living during a pandemic. Until the case numbers fall to zero, we can’t guarantee that COVID-19 won’t continue to spread, especially with the rise of variants. We can, however, minimize those risks.

Dr. Thompson suggests there are three risks that should be taken into consideration, no matter the occasion. Those are:

  • Risk of exposure
  • Risk of transmission
  • Risk of severe disease

Many factors contribute to higher risks of exposure, says Dr. Thompson, including larger groups, poor airflow when indoors, limited to no masking, low numbers of vaccinated individuals, and the inability to physically distance, among others.

Risk of transmission is a different story, as it refers to the people you’re interacting with on a daily basis. Some people face higher risks simply based on their daily activities and should therefore be more cautious about attending events for the sake of themselves and others.

 Those at higher risk, according to Dr. Thompson, include:

  • Those living in congregate housing, such as dorms or nursing homes
  • Those who work in large groups 
  • Those living in a geographic area with a high prevalence of disease
  • Those living in an area with a high incidence of disease from variants 

Finally, you should be mindful of anyone in your social bubble or anyone at the gathering who is facing a higher risk of serious disease, such as older people or those who are immunocompromised, says Dr. Thompson. 

If you and every other attendee at a social gathering has been vaccinated, then the CDC suggests you can remove masks. But we’re learning that you can still contract the disease and pass it on to those who haven’t been vaccinated yet.

Therefore, you should keep your gatherings small and outside, whenever possible, until the data changes. If not everyone at the gathering has been vaccinated, then you’ll want to be extremely diligent to mitigate risks.

Because there are no clear signs indicating who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t, social gatherings are going to be complicated for a while. Until case numbers are virtually zero, err on the side of caution and practice safe measures, such as masking, washing hands, maintaining six-feet distances, and staying home if you’re feeling sick.

Establish Boundaries

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, you may not want to gather in unmasked groups or attend large gatherings and that makes sense. Now is the time to determine what works for you and what doesn’t.

“Everybody will have their own challenges,” says Dr. Ogunwole. “When you’re at weddings and even at funerals, you have this overflowing sense of wanting to hug and be close to people. It’s very difficult to suppress that, even as a scientist.”

Just the simple act of gathering with people you haven’t seen in over a year may seem overwhelming. Do you have to hug them? What do you do if they take off their mask or hand you a drink? What if it gets too crowded for your liking? How do you politely leave without making them feel bad?

“Boundaries can be perceived as the limits we construct and maintain with other individuals,” says Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director at Community Psychiatry. “In order to set healthy boundaries, [you] should first identify [your] limits and comfort level with specific situations. It may be helpful to process these thoughts with a therapist or loved one or journal to gain a sense of clarity.”

Express Discomfort

When saying “no'' to invitations, let the host know you wish you could be there but don’t feel comfortable attending.

If you want to avoid hugging or touching people at the event, let people know in advance or upon greeting them. You can say something as simple as, “Sorry, I don’t feel comfortable touching, but I’m so happy to see you.” This automatically establishes your boundary.

Dr. Magavi recommends using succinct, clear phrases to address and clarify your comfort level and needs.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Verbalizing and naming emotions allows individuals to understand different perspectives and makes a request appear more like a request rather than a criticism.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

If you show up to a gathering and it’s different than what you expected, you can pull the host aside privately and let them know why you’re uncomfortable. They may try to accommodate you. If not, politely let them know why you can’t stay.

Confronting friends and family members isn’t always a pleasant experience, but if they care about you they will care about your feelings, too.

Ask Questions

“During this pandemic, it is especially okay to ask for clarity, to respectfully correct someone, or to express discomfort with someone’s behavior,” says Dr. Magavi. Doing so early on can help establish a strong and healthy relationship foundation. If you find that people are not respecting your boundaries, it's appropriate to walk away or distance yourself from them for some time. While this may feel difficult, it's important in preserving your emotional and physical health.

Not everyone will follow the same practices. No matter where you are or who you’re with, be intentional with your boundaries. They exist to protect your health and mental health, as well as the health of those around you.

How to Host a Safe Gathering

So many of us have proceeded with caution throughout this pandemic, making countless sacrifices to protect our health and the health of loved ones. Don’t let this effort go to waste. If you’re preparing to host an event or gathering in 2021, focus on safety first.

  • Keep gatherings controlled.
  • Require people to wear masks.
  • Exercise caution when interacting and attending events.
  • Set expectations for guests.

Keep It Controlled

For now, keep gatherings small and outdoors, if possible. Larger events may return this year, but they require specific preparations to ensure that all guests are safely distanced and/or separated by their individual pods. If the event is indoors, then reasonable guidelines should be followed. For more specifics, review the latest CDC guidelines.

You should also keep a detailed record of all who attend. If someone from your gathering has been exposed to COVID-19 or is showing signs of illness at the event or in the days following, you’ll need to notify all of your guests. 

Require Masking

We know masking makes a difference. Make it a mandate, if you can. Unless all attendees are fully vaccinated or the event is physically distanced and outdoors, then masks should be worn for protection.

If you’re planning to provide food or drink, make sure that you’ve set up physically distanced spaces where your guests can unmask and eat or drink safely. 

If your gathering is at your home or in a private space, be prepared to monitor and manage proper mask wearing. If you’re concerned that someone won’t mask, try and confront them ahead of the gathering to make sure they’re willing to wear one.

Maintain Caution

When planning your event, it’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. For the safest possible gathering, you can require all who attend to be vaccinated. If you know not everyone in attendance will be vaccinated, then you’ll want to notify your guests beforehand so they can decide if they want to attend or not. 

“I advise keeping Zoom or FaceTime on for family members who have not yet received their vaccine or with chronic illnesses who are unable to attend in-person,” advises Dr. Magavi.

If the event is outdoors, which we know is safest, then Dr. Magavi suggests telling guests to bring their own blankets and items for setting up on the grass or pavement. If you want to serve meals, make them individually sized and offer bottled or canned beverages.

“It is also advisable to keep hand sanitizing stations and extra disposable masks,” says Dr. Magavi. “Even outside, it is important to remain six feet apart.”

Set Expectations for Guests

The more information you share, the better. Guests, vaccinated or not, want to feel safe and comfortable. In advance of your gathering, no matter its size, notify your guests of the specifics. Things worth mentioning include:

  • If vaccinations are required or not
  • If the event will be masked (or maskless)
  • If food will be served (or not)
  • If guests should bring their own food, drink, chairs, etc.
  • If physical distancing will be enforced (or not)
  • The location of the gathering, including the size of the space 
  • The expected length of the gathering

Be Flexible and Respectful

Most importantly, ask your guests if they feel comfortable with this arrangement and allow them the opportunity to say “no.” This is a time when we must be flexible, but also respectful of other people’s boundaries. You may assume that individuals who are fully vaccinated are comfortable (and excited) to attend social gatherings, no matter the specifics, but that might not be the case.

The best thing you can do is generate a conversation in advance. If someone is feeling uncomfortable, you can offer assurance or let them know that it’s okay to decline the invite. 

A Word From Verywell

Life post-pandemic won’t be like life pre-pandemic. The sooner we accept this, the better. One of the things we know for certain is that vaccinations and masks are proving beneficial in the fight against the coronavirus. 

“If you’re allowed to do the things you miss so much, what is a mask?” asks Dr. Ogunwole. “We have to get back to normal a little bit, but we can still do it in a safe way.” 

Rather than miss out on more time with family or friends, continue masking, washing your hands, and keeping a physical distance. These are tried and true practices that will help lower COVID-19 cases and prevent additional spikes, allowing for more social gatherings.

“Far too many people have already died, too many students have had their education compromised, and too many businesses have suffered or closed,” says Dr. Thompson. “To achieve an end to this pandemic, we must be vigilant about adhering to best public health practices available, even if they are uncomfortable.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Sarah Sheppard
Sarah Sheppard is a writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing instructor, and advocate for mental health, women's issues, and more.