Summer is almost over; the pandemic, not so much.
While the number of daily coronavirus cases in the U.S. has come down from its peak of more than 77,000 reported on July 16, the country is still averaging more than 40,000 new cases per day. That’s well above the baseline of 10,000 new cases per day that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease expert, says the country should be recording as we head into the flu season — which could make this the worst fall, from a public health standpoint, that we’ve ever had.
“We know from prior experience that when you get into holiday weekends, the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, there is a tendency of people to be careless somewhat with regard to the public health measures that we keep recommending over and over again,” he told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell this week. “You can have an enjoyable weekend … you don’t need to lock yourself down, but don’t be careless about things,” he explained, citing crowds and bars in particular for spreading COVID-19.
The CDC has warned against large gatherings of more than 50 people, as it’s often difficult to follow social distancing guidelines like staying six feet apart in these situations. But contact tracing suggests that even small gatherings that feel safe — such as backyard barbecues or family parties, which are popular Labor Day activities — have been driving forces in spreading the virus. Cases in point:
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan reported that contact tracing in July found that 44% of people testing positive for COVID-19 in the state had attended a family activity, and 23% had gone to a house party.
In Alabama, 11 relatives gathered together at a lake house in July. They mostly spent time outside, but none of them wore masks. Eight of them later tested positive for COVID-19. “We let our guard down,” one guest admitted.
And more than 130 COVID-19 cases and at least one death have been traced back to a small Maine wedding in early August that counted just 67 guests. The person who died didn’t even attend the wedding; she apparently contracted COVID-19 from someone else who went.
Dr. Jolion McGreevy, the medical director of The Mount Sinai Hospital Emergency Department in New York, told MarketWatch that people may already be forgetting how vital social distancing was in March and April, when the outbreak was just beginning. “New York did a really great job early of setting guidelines around how people should behave in public … and it really made a difference for us and kept the pandemic from getting really out of control in the city,” he said. “People cannot take that for granted now. We have to stay on top of this.”
So how can you celebrate Labor Day weekend safely with your family? There are three key rules: Stay outside. Stay six feet away from anyone who doesn’t live in your household. And wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth.
The biggest no-no: Touching anyone from outside your household — which is something to keep in mind if you’re planning to go to a barbecue or attend a gathering where people will be coming in from all different places. That means no hugs or handshakes, no cheek-kissing, and no sharing food or drinks. People should remain in a “pod” with members of their own household that’s six feet apart from other family pods.
“The only real ‘no’ is direct physical contact,” McGreevy said. “But people in small gatherings with people they know really start to become lax — they take their masks down, they think ‘we can hug’ or ‘I can shake hands.’ These are things that I just wouldn’t do.”
This is because the coronavirus spreads primarily from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, even if they are not showing COVID-19 symptoms. “If you’ve been out and about, you need to assume that you have COVID,” Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, said in Michigan earlier this week. “And if you visit grandma, keep your mask on.”
Some other activities that McGreevy suggests people avoid include indoor parties, which are hard to ventilate properly. Long road trips in a car with people that you don’t live with could also be risky. “I would think twice about doing that,” he said. “Staying outside in a well-ventilated area where people can maintain a good distance with ease is clearly the best. I don’t really think a confined space would be that safe.”
If you have to go indoors or share a car, then wear a mask, open windows in lieu of running the air conditioner, avoid physical contact, keep washing your hands and don’t touch your face.
And try to keep shindigs on the shorter side, as the longer you are around other people, the greater your risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.
“I think it’s really important that people follow very clear protocols, and that everyone in the group agrees to stay six feet apart, and that everyone will wear a mask at all times,” he said.
Here are some more guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about how to get together over Labor Day weekend safely.
If you’re hosting a party or cookout
- Remind guests to stay home if they feel sick or if they may have been exposed to COVID-19 in the last 14 days.
- Host your gathering outdoors, and arrange tables and chairs to allow for social distancing. People from the same household can sit together – just keep them six feet away from other families.
- If the party has to move inside, open windows to improve ventilation, and clean high-contact surfaces frequently.
- Don’t shake hands, elbow-bump or give hugs when someone arrives or leaves. Wave instead.
- Everyone should wear masks when less than six feet apart from other people, or while indoors.
- Make sure everyone washes their hands or uses hand sanitizer frequently.
- Try to limit shared items (like hand towels and utensils) so that multiple people aren’t handling them.
- Skip buffet and family-style dining, and have one person serve everyone to limit multiple people touching food or serving utensils.
If you’re visiting a park or beach
- Stay home if you feel sick at all, have been exposed to COVID-19, or are showing COVID-19 symptoms.
- Visit parks that are close to your home, as traveling long distances means you’ll probably have to make stops along the way, which can contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
- Wear a mask when social distancing is difficult, such as walking along crowded trails or using a public restroom.
- Avoided crowded spots where you cannot stay at least six feet apart from people that you don’t live with.
- Don’t gather with people who don’t live in your house.
If you’re traveling overnight
- Wear a mask in the lobby or other common areas of your hotel or bed & breakfast
- Avoid or minimize use of common areas that can lead to close contact, such as break rooms, patios, lounging areas, game rooms, fitness centers, saunas and salons.
- Choose contactless options when possible, such as mobile room keys, contactless payments, checking in and out of your room online, contactless room service delivery, etc.
- Consider taking the stairs instead of the elevator where possible, or wait to use the elevator when you can ride alone or only with people from your household.
And refer to the CDC for an even more detailed list of tips for gathering safely this weekend.