No indoor gathering will be perfectly safe. Although many states have allowed indoor public settings such as gyms and restaurants to reopen at least in some capacity, experts don’t recommend spending a lot of time indoors with others, especially in situations where masking isn’t possible. The odds of catching the coronavirus are about 20 times higher indoors, and private, indoor gatherings have been linked to several coronavirus outbreaks. In June, a surprise birthday party in Texas resulted in 18 coronavirus cases. In July, a house party in Michigan led to 43 cases, and a family gathering in North Carolina led to 40 cases because the attendees “went about their daily lives” before they started showing symptoms. In some places, in-home gatherings are now responsible for the majority of new coronavirus cases. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed how a chain of family gatherings in Chicago led to three deaths.
But it’s unrealistic to expect Americans to stay inside all winter without seeing anyone. Even if people could do that without going batty, it’s likely that, with January feeling endless and no stay-at-home order in place, people will take their chances. “Making a rule that says zero indoor gatherings until we have a vaccine is totally impractical,” says Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School.
In the absence of such a rule, “we have a mishmash of risk communication and guidelines from different entities,” Marcus told me, “and people are continuing to muddle through. It’s funny, because now I’m sitting here thinking, What are the rules in my city? I actually don’t know.”
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Beyond “stay at home” and “it’s okay to go out now,” government officials aren’t explaining the relative risks clearly and widely enough for everyone to understand. Ever since states publicized their “reopenings,” some people have seen unrelated people only from a six-foot distance and outside. Others are throwing indoor weddings. Often, these people live in the same city.
Given this information vacuum, researchers like Ranney and some public-health workers have launched their own efforts to help people decide what types of social activities are safe, based on where they live.
In a few phone calls, I too was able to figure out whether socializing indoors is okay. But not everyone is a health reporter.
Here’s what to consider before you host that dinner party inside your dining room on a nippy October day: If you make it small, and primarily comprising people under 60, that’s safer. If your guests can stay six feet apart, even better—though consider that this is not likely to happen once they have had a few glasses of wine and the board games come out.
Perhaps the most important factor is the level of so-called community transmission: how many new COVID-19 cases are in your immediate area. Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me she wouldn’t be comfortable at an indoor dinner party right now, no matter what. But if you were going to risk it, it’s safer in areas that are seeing only five to 10 new cases a day per 100,000 people, and have a test-positivity rate less than 5 percent. Tom Tsai, a health-policy professor at Harvard, puts this number slightly higher, at 25 cases per 100,000.