There’s one guest you hope doesn’t make an appearance at any of the family gatherings and activities you’ll be attending in the upcoming months: COVID-19.

With some planning, there are ways to reduce your chance of ending up on the same guest list as the coronavirus.

Below, you’ll learn how to identify safer choices so you can spend more time enjoying activities, events and family gatherings, and less time worrying about COVID-19.

Safety considerations for outings and family gatherings during COVID-19

It would be nice to have clear-cut rules about activities during COVID-19. But the truth is that every situation is a bit different, and not every person has the same level of risk. These are a few key steps to help you identify the safety considerations for group events:

Step 1: Understand your overall health and risks

It’s impossible to say who’s going to get COVID-19. However, there are reasons you may be more likely to get COVID-19. These include being:

  • Unvaccinated
  • Immunocompromised or in poor health
  • Middle aged or older
  • Frequently around people who may have COVID-19 because of your job or living situation

If any of these things apply to you, take special measures to keep yourself and others safe. For example, wear a mask, social distance and wash your hands frequently when you’re around other people.

If you haven’t yet gotten vaccinated, consider getting a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you can, since that’s the best way to make activities safer for both you and the people you care about.

If you’ve been vaccinated, think about getting a booster shot or an immunocompromised dose, if you’re eligible.

How does breakthrough COVID-19 affect your risks?

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine greatly reduces your risk of getting it, but it’s still possible to get breakthrough COVID-19.

If you get breakthrough COVID-19, it’s usually pretty mild. And it’s unlikely you’ll need to go to the hospital because of it. But if you’re immunocompromised, are older or have significant health problems, the risk of complications may be greater. That’s why it’s important to make safer choices that can reduce your risk of getting breakthrough COVID-19.

Step 2: Think about who’ll be at your event

People at the outing or event you’re considering attending can affect your chances of getting COVID-19. If they’re strangers, they could be unvaccinated or have COVID-19, so it’s always good to take safety precautions.

With friends and family, you’ll want answers to the following questions before deciding what’s safe for you:

Is everyone vaccinated? Have guests been recently tested for COVID-19?

Events are safest when everyone has gotten their COVID-19 vaccine – and a booster shot if they’re eligible. It’s likely that you know the vaccination status of your closest friends and family. But what do you know about distant relatives or casual acquaintances? You shouldn’t assume that everyone has the same views on the COVID-19 vaccines as you do.

If a friend or family member is hosting a party, consider asking around to learn who’s coming and whether they’re vaccinated. If you’re unable to track down the answers, it’s safest to behave as if unvaccinated people are going to be there.

For larger events or activities that involve strangers, it might not be possible to know who is or isn’t vaccinated. However, there are a growing number of entertainment venues that are requiring proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID-19 test) to attend events.

If everyone is vaccinated, it’s usually safe to gather in a private location without masks or social distancing. In situations where not everyone is vaccinated, it’s safest for everyone to wear a mask during indoor events. In outdoor situations, masks are recommended if you’re in a crowded space that doesn’t allow for social distancing.

Are attendees following recommendations for staying safe in other situations?

The safety of an event also depends on whether attendees – both vaccinated and unvaccinated – generally follow masking guidelines and social distancing recommendations throughout their daily lives. That’s because if people behave in a way that reduces their chance of getting COVID-19, there’s less of a chance for it to spread when people are gathered.

Some people who are vaccinated may feel comfortable going to crowded indoor events without a mask because they know that the COVID-19 vaccine provides strong protection again severe COVID-19. While that’s certainly true, it’s still possible that people who are vaccinated can get a case of breakthrough COVID. Symptoms are often mild in breakthrough cases, so people can spread it without knowing.

If you don’t always follow guidelines, make sure to watch for COVID-19 symptoms, even if you’ve been vaccinated. And, if you think or know that you’ve been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, it’s a good idea to schedule a COVID-19 test for 2-3 days after exposure, even if you don’t have symptoms.

Step 3: Consider where the activity will take place

Where the event takes place also factors into the overall safety of an event. That’s because COVID-19 is more likely to spread in certain environments.

Is the event outdoors or indoors?

Outdoor events are safer because the air is constantly moving the respiratory droplets that cause COVID-19 away from you. Of course, it’s not possible to have all gatherings outside, especially during cold winter months.

When events take place inside, it’s important that there’s good ventilation. Open doors and windows are great ways to ventilate in warmer months. In colder weather it may be harder to have good ventilation for inside gatherings, and that’s something to consider when thinking about the safety of an event.

Is the activity in a crowded location?

Indoor and outdoor events are safer when there’s room for social distancing. That’s because it’s easier for COVID-19 to spread when people are packed together. If the event is crowded, you can reduce potential exposure by wearing a mask and reducing the amount of time you spend at the event.

How fast is COVID-19 spreading in the community?

You may have seen signs in your favorite stores that masks are recommended, even if you’re vaccinated, in areas of substantial or high community transmission. What does this mean, and how do you know if it applies to you?

Substantial or high community transmission means that COVID-19 is quickly spreading within a community based on the number of new cases. Most of the U.S. still qualifies as having a high or substantial risk of COVID-19 transmission within communities – including Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that, if you live in an area of substantial or high community transmission, you should wear a mask in indoor public spaces (and sometimes outdoors, too).

Step 4: Determine what feels safe to you

The last step is putting it all together. Based on your health and the type of activity, decide what’s safe for you. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

If you’re vaccinated

You can feel confident that you have the best protection against the coronavirus. And, you can feel comfortable gathering with other vaccinated individuals, without masks and distancing.

When you’re in public places or around people who aren’t vaccinated, you’ll still have a high level of protection, especially if you wear a mask in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor spaces. But if you’re older, immunocompromised or live with people who haven’t been vaccinated, you may want to be more cautious by masking and taking other safety precautions, like social distancing.

If you’re not vaccinated

If you’re not vaccinated, you have the greatest risk for getting and spreading COVID-19. So take steps to keep yourself and others safe. This includes wearing a mask when you’re around others and practicing social distancing. Also, take time to learn the facts about COVID-19 vaccine safety and consider getting vaccinated if you can. It truly is the best way to protect yourself and others.

Common situations during COVID-19 and how to make them safer

The good news is that you don’t have to stop having fun just because COVID-19 is still around. However, there are ways to make activities and gatherings safer.

Indoor family holidays and birthday celebrations

If you’re planning the event: Limit your invite list to a small group of people and hold the event in a private location that has sufficient room for social distancing. If everyone is vaccinated, guests don’t need to wear masks unless they’d like to. If the gathering includes people who haven’t been vaccinated, ask that everyone wear masks except for brief periods when eating.

If you’re attending the event: Safe choices will likely depend on the type of event and your personal risks. If you’re vaccinated, you probably don’t need to wear a mask when in small gatherings, especially if everyone else is vaccinated. However, if you’re immunocompromised, it can still be a good idea to wear a mask.

Shopping trips to the mall

The safest choice is if everyone in your group wears masks while shopping inside, even if they’re vaccinated.

Of course, when and where you go can make a difference, too. If the mall is packed with people who are doing their holiday shopping, it can be hard to maintain social distance. So, it’s a safer choice to skip the big holiday sales and go during non-peak hours. You may also want to consider outdoor malls, shop online or use store pickup instead.

Sports, concerts, theater, movies and other entertainment venues

It’s hard to avoid crowds at an indoor sports game or theater performance. If you’re vaccinated, you may feel safer attending an event at a venue that requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. But even in these situations, it’s a good idea to mask-up – and many venues still require masks.

If you choose to go to an event that doesn’t require proof of vaccination, try to find a way to give yourself space. For example, you may choose to sit in a seat rather than be in the pit at a concert. And, of course, wearing masks will help make the event safer as well.

Outdoor events tend to be safer than indoor ones. But if they’re crowded and there’s no room for social distancing, it can be a good idea to throw on a mask for added protection.

Indoor dining and happy hours

People have lots of opinions on whether it’s safe to go out for food or drinks during COVID-19. But if you choose to go out, there are things you can do to make the outing safer:

  • Go to a location that won’t be crowded and has plenty of room between tables
  • Leave your mask on unless you’re eating or drinking, and definitely make sure to put it back on when you leave the table

How to make safe choices but also be respectful

Not everyone agrees on what’s necessary to keep events safe during COVID-19. While you have your own ideas about what’s safe, other people might believe differently.

If you’re not sure a situation is COVID-19 safe, you can try to find ways to make things safer. For example, if a friend is scheduling a massive event at the hottest spot in town, you could suggest a quieter location.

But if people don’t want to change their plans, you might need to skip the activity and find a different opportunity to get together later. A virtual gathering is a great option to connect face-to-face while keeping yourself free from potential COVID-19 exposure.

Looking forward to merrier days ahead

While outings and gatherings will be a little different for the foreseeable future, the good news is that there are ways to improve the safety of outings and gatherings during COVID-19.

No matter how you celebrate and who you celebrate with, the most important thing is that you’re making the choices that will keep you and your loved ones safe.

By making safer choices, you protect both yourself and others from COVID-19. By working together, we’ll continue to make strides in getting the pandemic under control.