How to gather safely
Though it may seem counterintuitive, large, formal settings are often safer than small, informal ones, because they typically require people to follow stringent rules to minimize risk, said Dr. Arwady.
At school, for instance, “even though the kids are in the classroom, their activities are very much prescribed,” said Dr. Ellen Wald, an infectious disease pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. They are typically required to wear masks and sit at desks spaced six feet apart.
In Chicago, Dr. Arwady said, only about 5 to 6 percent of recent cases have been linked to crowded settings like large workplaces and long-term care facilities. Few are also coming from large events such as protests or religious services. The city even ran some in-person camps this summer, yet few children got infected, because strict protocols were in place.
Yet the opposite is often true when people get together casually. With friends and family, we relax; we take off our masks and aren’t as strict about policing our kids’ social distancing. But this isn’t a good idea, Dr. Arwady warned. “I think the settings where people are now feeling safe are the settings where the risk is, in many ways, actually highest,” she said. And if kids who get infected at small gatherings then go to school, they risk spreading it to their classmates, teachers and other school staff.
This doesn’t mean that families must lock themselves in the house for the rest of the year. But it is important for them to follow public health guidelines at all times, said Dr. O’Leary, even when meeting up informally with friends and family (unless they are participating in true pandemic pods, in which families socialize with one another and no one else).
Whenever possible, hold social gatherings outside, Dr. O’Leary advised, and make sure everyone wears masks, especially if they cannot stay at least six feet apart. If you have to be inside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest maximizing ventilation by opening windows or doors and having everyone wear masks and, again, keeping at least a six foot distance.
“Kids need to socialize, don’t get me wrong,” Dr. Arwady said. The goal is to “make sure that kids are getting the things that they need for their emotional development, for their mental health, but in ways that keep risk relatively low.”
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and health writer and the author of a forthcoming book on raising children.