When bride-to-be Jane W. (last name withheld for privacy reasons) postponed her wedding a second time, from March to June 2021, she felt silly for pushing back the affair just a few more months. (She’d initially postponed her October 2020 wedding for eight months.) The second postponement was to avoid stay-at-home orders; Jane had read news coverage of a potential nationwide lockdown once President Joe Biden took office, which would have extended into March, interrupting her nuptials. Then, when she considered how vaccines would be more readily available come the spring, she decided to buy herself, and her guests, more time and delayed the outdoor Southern California wedding to June.
“I knew wedding planning was stressful but this kind of stress is different,” Jane says. “Not knowing if you’ll be able to actually have a wedding or having to compromise on what you wanted to do really sucks the fun out of all of this.”
Covid-19 has turned average people into epidemiological fortune tellers, looking for signals indicating what’s to come and how such pandemic conditions will impact their lives. While vaccines put the end of the pandemic in sight, America is still in a waiting period. But a maskless outdoor wedding or barbecue is possible later this summer, some experts say.
Medium Coronavirus Blog
A blog from Medium for Covid-19 news, advice, and commentary.
While it’s impossible to put a definitive time stamp on when maskless gatherings and events will be deemed safe, I spoke to seven experts about when they currently predict it could happen. Their predictions are based on their own expertise and the expected trajectory of the virus, but could be subject to change based on factors like vaccine distribution.
When experts think people can safely have have maskless events
Jennifer Weuve, MPH, ScD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, says she believes the tides are starting to change with the new Biden administration. “That sounds possibly Pollyanna,” Weuve says, “and for something as much of a behemoth that Covid-19 has been, certainly one person is not going to make a difference.” But strong national leadership from the Biden administration in the form of a Covid-19 task force, science-based guidance, a national mask mandate, faster testing, paid sick leave, and faster deployment of vaccines should bring noticeable changes to the path of recovery soon.
It will be possible to host maskless events in 2021, says Paloma Beamer, PhD, an associate professor at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona. But based on the current spread of Covid-19 nationwide and the fact that the country is still in the early stages of vaccination, Beamer wouldn’t recommend making any solid party plans for before May or June.
Data scientist Youyang Gu, who has forecasted deaths, infections, and the path to herd immunity, predicts the country will reach 70% immunity by July — only if vaccines prove to be effective at protecting against emerging Covid-19 variants and if vaccine distribution reaches 2 million doses administered daily before then. “As we vaccinate more people, we’ll see hospitalizations and deaths decrease significantly,” Gu says. “By the summer, hopefully we will be back at near the levels we were pre-Covid in terms of hospitalizations and deaths and I think by that point it would be safe to have this return to hosting all these different events.”
Dean Winslow, MPH, PhD, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, says masking and distancing will still be necessary, especially at indoor gatherings, at least through the end of the summer — so indoor Memorial Day and July 4th barbecues with extended family may have to wait. If you can maintain six feet of distance outdoors, maskless early summer holiday gatherings with a small group should be reasonably safe, Winslow says. “Hopefully by Thanksgiving, we’ll be in a lot better shape and we will be able to more safely have face-to-face get togethers,” Winslow says.
Billy Oglesby, PhD, the interim dean for the Jefferson College of Population Health, agrees that maskless Thanksgiving dinners could be on the horizon this year, but advises against any gatherings prior. Any serious party planning, Oglesby says, should wait until the end of summer when experts should hopefully know whether available vaccines are effective at preventing infection from variants.
Masking and distancing will still be necessary, especially at indoor gatherings, at least through the end of the summer.
Hilary Godwin, PhD, the dean of the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, predicts masked indoor gatherings of 25 to 30 people will be feasible during the second half of this year. (She says larger unmasked indoor gatherings might have to wait until spring 2022.)
Other public health experts are not as optimistic. Brooks Gump, PhD, MPH, the Falk Family Endowed Professor of Public Health in the Falk College at Syracuse University, says masking and social distancing will be required of all gatherings through at least the end of this year. However, that shouldn’t stop you from celebrating, he says. Not only is it unrealistic to expect everyone to completely self-isolate for an indeterminate amount of time, but avoiding all in-person socialization is detrimental to our mental health. Rather than put off your wedding for another two years, the safest way — and in Gump’s view, the only way — to host your event would be to ensure all guests are masked and socially distanced. “To some extent, folks will have to give up on the idea of having a ‘normal’ wedding and move ahead with a socially distanced, masked, maybe even virtual rehearsal dinner,” Gump says. “Things that aren’t ideal but can still be enjoyable.”
What needs to happen before you can go maskless
Put simply, the country must reach at least 75% people vaccinated before you can think about taking off your mask at an indoor gathering, Winslow says. For small groups of five or so people who have all been vaccinated, indoor maskless gatherings are safe, Weuve says. “If we’re talking about a small group of people who’ve all been vaccinated — great! Come on over for dinner as long as it’s been two weeks at least that we’ve had our two doses,” she says.
This may feel a little in the weeds, but paying attention to the local transmission rates are important for gauging if your event can go on. Gump says maskless gatherings are possible when the positivity rate in your city drops to 3% or 4% (many city and state health departments are tracking this). Weuve also suggests looking at local hospital ICU capacity as an indicator of community spread. If hospitals are full or overwhelmed, it’s not a good idea to gather in large groups or without masks. These days, you’d be hard pressed to find low transmission and high hospital capacity anywhere in the country. “I’m a pretty fearless guy overall,” Winslow says, “and I’m even careful about avoiding even trips to the grocery store unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
Far out-of-state air travel, Beamer says, should be shelved until the summer. Until vaccine distribution is more widespread, people should be wary of traveling by plane, Weuve says. (She hesitates to cite a specific national vaccination rate which would make flying safe, but Anthony Fauci, MD, has said air travel will gradually become less risky as the country nears 75% vaccination, perhaps even less). International travel should be considered only when other countries, in addition to the U.S., have a handle on their outbreaks. That is, when countries lift their travel restrictions (only a handful of nations, including Albania, Belarus, and Montenegro are allowing unrestricted travel from the U.S.; the U.S. has currently banned travel from the U.K., Brazil, and South Africa) and if the country you’re traveling to has less than five cases per 100,000 people over the last 28 days. “We look at the U.K. for example, which is really struggling right now,” Weuve says, “and I don’t think they’re interested in having any of us.”
As you plan your event, there are ways to minimize risks, Beamer says. Anything you can do to limit the frequency, intensity, and duration of potential exposure is safest. For weddings, keep the ceremony short; for vacations, consider driving instead of flying to limit interactions with others. If you can change the venue for your event, hold it outdoors and keep the guest list under the maximum gathering capacity for outdoor events in your city.
For indoor events, ensure the venue is properly ventilated. Experts recommend about six air exchanges per hour — much more than an average home, which has 0.35 air exchanges per hour. While most venues won’t know the air exchange rate, you can work around that by keeping the guest list small to minimize the amount of fresh air needed to properly ventilate the room and lower the chances someone in your group is infectious.
Regardless of case count, positivity rate, and your personal optimism, always have a backup plan for your party if things go sideways, Beamer says. This can mean buying vacation insurance or not signing contracts with venues that you won’t be able to get out of — anything to ensure you won’t end up with a canceled event and hefty fees if cases unexpectedly spike.
As her wedding approaches, Jane says she will continue to monitor conditions in Southern California — and her family’s ability and willingness to get vaccinated — when making a decision on whether to whittle down her guest list even further. With nearly a year of playing public health expert under her belt, she’s ready to abandon that role.
“At this point, it feels like the wedding is looming over us,” she says. “I just want to get it done so I can move on.”