For many people, missing large gatherings, such as weddings, funerals, musical performances, and parties, is one of the hardest things about life during the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown. However, large gatherings remain one of the highest risk activities in which a person can participate.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to express concern about “superspreader” events, which are large events where many people catch the virus before passing it to others at home or in their communities.

There is no way to make gatherings fully safe, but people can weigh the risks and benefits and take certain steps to reduce their chances of getting the virus.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that people maintain physical distancing when attending gatherings.
Image credit: Jenny Evans/Getty Images.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, is significantly more likely to spread at large gatherings than during most other activities. One analysis of a church gathering in March 2020 found that of 92 attendees:

  • A total of 35 participants (38%) developed COVID-19, and three died.
  • The church service caused an additional 26 cases among nonattenders in the community. One person with the infection died.
  • The highest rates of infection were among people aged 19 and older.

The more people who are present at an event, the more likely it is that at least one attendee will have SARS-CoV-2. Additionally, a higher number of attendees increases the likelihood that one or more individuals will not take the virus seriously or maintain physical distance from others.

Self-isolating or quarantining away from others can be exhausting and demoralizing. Such adverse effects may explain why many states have relaxed physical distancing guidelines in spite of evidence that SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread.

The United States has the highest number of cases and deaths in the world. Moreover, infection rates are now significantly higher than they were when many states first shut down.

With their knowledge about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 increasing, researchers now believe that the virus transmits primarily through close person-to-person contact. A person does not have to be sick or have symptoms to transmit the virus. Therefore, temperature checks will not necessarily prevent the virus from spreading, and people who seem well can still pass the virus on to others.

One of the best things that a person can do to avoid getting the virus and potentially becoming ill with COVID-19 is to avoid in-person gatherings, even with family or friends. However, prolonged isolation can damage mental health, especially for those who live alone.

If people do wish to attend gatherings, they can practice physical distancing and protect themselves with these tips:

1. Know the risk

The risk of attending gatherings varies with the size and location of the gathering.

The CDC report that virtual gatherings are the safest option, with no risk of infection. Smaller outdoor meetups present only a moderate risk because they make it easier to maintain physical distance. Slightly larger gatherings have a high risk, but adapting the gathering to maintain 6 feet of distance between the members of different households can help mitigate this risk.

The highest risk gatherings are large indoor gatherings where maintaining 6 feet of distance is not possible. It does not matter whether these gatherings include family members or strangers. Rather, it is the size of the gathering, the physical closeness of the participants, and the local infection rate that matter most.

This tool looks at local COVID-19 data to assess the likelihood of a gathering attendee having SARS-CoV-2.

2. Maintain social distance

The single most important way to reduce the risk of the virus spreading at any gathering is to maintain 6 feet of distance from anyone belonging to a different household. When attending family gatherings, it is helpful to alert people to this recommendation ahead of time. Otherwise, attendees should prepare to guard their space and use gentle, friendly prompts to encourage distance.

For example, people can try the following:

  • “I am high risk, so would you mind taking a few steps back?'”
  • “I am trying to keep everyone safe, so let’s try to stay a bit farther apart.”

3. Wear a face covering

Wearing a face covering can greatly slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, particularly if all event attendees wear one. People planning gatherings should consider making masks mandatory, potentially even giving them out at the entrance. To be effective, a mask or other face covering must cover the mouth and nose and fit snugly against the face.

A 2020 analysis of 172 observational studies found that masks of all varieties greatly reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission. However, the benefit was greatest with N95 and surgical masks.

It is important to wear the face covering for the entire event. Removing the face covering and putting it back on can contaminate it. There is also an increased risk of exposure to the virus when the face covering is off.

4. Keep the gathering short

Spending less time with others, especially in enclosed spaces, may reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Infection rates are highest among people who are in close contact for 15 minutes or longer.

People who want to see loved ones at a family gathering should consider going for just a few minutes.

5. Evaluate how seriously attendees take the risk

The most important predictors of how dangerous a gathering is include how seriously the attendees take the risk. People who take the threat seriously are more likely to wear a face covering and adhere to physical distancing recommendations. Those who think that the virus is a hoax or not dangerous may not keep their distance, particularly with those who want to stay in close contact.

It is not always possible to know how attendees feel about an event. However, the rules that the organizers establish can hint at how carefully people will be following safety guidelines.

6. Propose a smaller alternative

Shrinking the size of a gathering makes it easier to physically distance and, therefore, less likely that the virus will spread. People who are concerned can suggest making the gathering smaller. For example, a couple might choose to stagger a wedding reception so that only 15 guests are present at a time.

7. Consider the location

The location of the gathering may determine how risky it is. Gatherings in areas with no or little spread of SARS-CoV-2 are much safer than those in areas where the virus is rapidly and aggressively spreading. People can check the local number of cases to assess the likelihood that an attendee will have the virus.

It may be tempting to attend large gatherings, but these gatherings increase the spread of SARS-CoV-2, prolonging the time that people must remain physically distant.

People considering attending a gathering should weigh the costs and benefits, research local infection rates, and talk to a trusted doctor.

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