Getting your COVID-19 vaccine can feel like a weight coming off your shoulders: Finally, after a whole year (and then some), you have a high level of protection against an illness that’s so contagious and has caused so much loss. Who knew a simple vaccination could produce such a powerful sense of relief?

But even if you’re vaccinated, the fact remains that not everyone else is. Plus, some people – like younger children – can’t yet get vaccinated at all. So do kids and the rest of their families need to keep masking? Is it safe to go to a gathering with unvaccinated people? And how do the new variants of COVID-19 come into play?

We’ve been hearing these and other questions from our patients. In a world where guidelines are often different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, it can be tough to know what to do in different situations. To help clear things up a little, we put together these answers on how to approach common scenarios that have a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

Why have masking guidelines for vaccinated people changed?

Admittedly, a benefit of being fully vaccinated was that you could be largely mask free. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that even vaccinated individuals wear masks most of the time when they are in public. So, why is that?

The changes in masking recommendations have to do with the new variants of the coronavirus and the possibility of getting a COVID-19 breakthrough case after you’ve been vaccinated.

To be clear: Getting vaccinated greatly reduces your chances of getting sick, and it’s still the best way to keep yourself and others healthy. It’s very rare for someone who’s vaccinated to get COVID-19. In many cases, people with breakthrough COVID-19 are asymptomatic, meaning they have no symptoms at all. But if you have a breakthrough COVID-19 case, you can still spread the coronavirus, even if you have no symptoms.

So, to keep everyone safe, and to control the spread, the CDC has updated its masking recommendation to say that even vaccinated people should wear a mask in the following circumstances:

  • Indoors – When in public places
  • Outdoors – If you live in a place where there’s a high chance of COVID-19 transmission
  • Outdoors – If you live with someone who is unvaccinated or has a weakened immune system

What to do when you’re vaccinated, but your kids aren’t: How to keep unvaccinated children healthy

Right now, everyone who’s at least 5 years old can – and should– get a COVID-19 vaccine. It’s the safest, most effective way to help bring the pandemic to an end.

Unfortunately, children under 5 years old aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated. Vaccine manufacturers are hard at work researching vaccine safety and effectiveness in younger children, but it’s still too soon to say when vaccines might become available for this age group.

That means until vaccines are available for younger kids, it’s safest for them to follow CDC guidelines for unvaccinated individuals. And to help kids feel included – and to keep them safe – it’s recommended that the rest of the family continues to wear masks, too.

Your little ones are always watching, so seeing you keeping up with masking behavior will encourage them to do the same. Plus, wearing your mask will reduce your chance of getting breakthrough COVID-19 and spreading it to your children.

Here are masking guidelines for children:

  • At home around their family, unvaccinated children don’t need to wear masks or socially distance. The risk of unvaccinated children getting COVID-19 while in a controlled domestic setting is very low.
  • In public or any time they’re around people they don’t live with, unvaccinated children 2 years and older, and the rest of their immediate families, should wear masks, socially distance and take other COVID-19 safety precautions.

Can children get (or spread) COVID-19? Are they really at risk?

Yes. While it is true that fewer children get infected with COVID-19 than adults, COVID-19 cases have been reported in all age groups – including infants. Children who develop COVID-19 also sometimes develop a serious medical complication called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C).

To lower the risk of serious illness from COVID-19, it’s essential that children continue to take safety precautions – and that their parents encourage them to do so. Until vaccines are available, masking, social distancing, frequent handwashing and other COVID-19 safety measures are important for kids to stick with.

Where to take the kids during COVID-19

Can unvaccinated children visit their grandparents?

Yes, if their grandparents have gotten their COVID-19 vaccines.

Especially after a long year, family bonding time is always a great idea. However, in line with CDC guidelines, masks and social distancing are still recommended for kids, so maybe keep the hugs and smooches brief.

For even lower risk of catching COVID-19, consider holding family time outdoors. Particularly if the weather is nice, it’s never bad for kids to burn off their extra energy outside, anyways.

Is it safe to set up playdates?

Until your child and their friends are fully vaccinated, any playdates should include mask wearing. You should also make a good attempt at social distancing (which, we know, can be tricky with active little ones).

Outdoor playdates are also safer options than indoor ones – trips to the park, nature hikes or backyard activities are good choices.

Are there safe family vacation options during COVID-19?

The CDC recommends unvaccinated people – including unvaccinated children – don’t travel.

But if you choose to travel anyway, we highly suggest you take a road trip rather than travel by bus, train or plane. Being in your car is similar to being in your home: The masks can come off, and you can feel a little more relaxed. On public modes of transportation, masks are required at all times – whether you’ve been vaccinated or not.

Also, if you do choose to travel, consider staying in a place you have to yourself, like a vacation rental or a secluded campsite. Hotels and campgrounds can be riskier choices.

Another good idea if you’re planning a vacation? Pick activities that don’t put your children at higher risk for COVID-19. A crowded amusement park, resort or beach may not be the best choice for kids right now. But on the other hand, a trip to a national park, relative’s house or socially distanced attraction could be a memorable experience that’s also a lower health risk.

Can kids go out to eat with their adults?

Yes, but if you can, sit outside – outdoor dining is safer. In addition, try to keep your masks up when not eating or drinking.

Another thing to consider is many restaurants are relaxing their social distancing policies, so it might be difficult to find a table that meets your needs. Consider asking for a place that’s a little farther away from other people, if possible – many restaurants will be happy to rearrange things a bit to accommodate your family.

How to handle events that mix vaccinated and unvaccinated people

Maybe you’ve been invited to a party, but you’re not sure if everyone there’s been vaccinated against COVID-19. Or you’re going to a holiday gathering, but you know a few of your cousins haven’t been vaccinated.

These situations can be tricky, especially because new strains of the coronavirus seem to be more contagious, and breakthrough cases of COVID-19 are possible. But there are ways to have safer in-person events during COVID-19. Here are some helpful tips:

  • If you’re organizing an event, you set the rules. Does everyone need to be vaccinated? Does everyone need to wear masks? Are there virtual options for people who can’t meet your attendance criteria? As the person holding the event, you should set, communicate and enforce clear rules so people know what to expect.
  • Consider setting event rules that don’t single out unvaccinated people. While we definitely suggest all people get a COVID-19 vaccine, you may wish to invite friends or family members who haven’t been vaccinated. In these situations, you may want to encourage everyone to wear a mask – regardless of vaccination status. You may also consider hosting your event outdoors for the greatest safety. Rules like these may help all your guests feel more included, and they may help balance public health safety with personal choices.
  • If you’re attending an event, learn what you can. For public events like sports or concerts, it’s most realistic to assume that at least a few people in the crowd are unvaccinated. But for private events, vaccination status may vary. Ask the event organizer if they’re taking any COVID-19 precautions related to vaccination status, masking or social distancing. With that information, you can plan accordingly.
  • Get tested if you have symptoms or have been exposed to COVID-19. Pay attention to how you’re feeling after spending time with people who haven’t been vaccinated. If you start to experience symptoms of COVID-19, make a virtual appointment with your doctor or get tested for COVID-19. If you find out that you’ve been in close contact with someone with COVID-19, get tested 3-5 days after the interaction, even if you don’t have symptoms.

Everyone has their own comfort level when it comes to starting to socialize again. Some people may only want to be around vaccinated people, while others may simply prefer that unvaccinated people wear masks. Some people may feel more relaxed in a friend’s backyard than in an event room at a restaurant.

No matter what, it’s important to be patient and respect choices. A declined invitation or missing attendee isn’t necessarily a personal slight – rather, everyone is on their own schedule with getting back to normal, or determining what normal now means for them. Try to keep a positive attitude.

Make COVID-19 vaccination a priority

Parties with friends, trips to new restaurants and in-person sports are something we’ve all missed. While new strains of COVID-19 are changing guidelines and recommendations, there’s no doubt that getting a COVID-19 vaccine – and a follow-up COVID-19 booster shot – are still the best options for most people (and the easiest path toward safer stores, restaurants, vacations and events).

But it’s going to take time for everyone to get there – kids younger than 5 years old can’t get vaccinated right now, and not everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated has found their reason yet.

Until more people can (and do) get vaccinated, knowing how to keep yourself and your kids healthy is one of the most responsible things you can do. The safety precautions you, your family and your friends observe will have an impact on how quickly – and how well – we put this COVID-19 pandemic behind us.