The Cold, Hard Truth Is You Shouldn’t Be Socializing Indoors

Photo: Boy_Anupong/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, I went to my best friend’s wedding in Boston. It was a super pared-down version of the big wedding she’d planned pre-pandemic, and she took every precaution she could think of. The handful of guests (just immediate family and the couple’s closest friends) all got negative Covid-19 tests a few days beforehand. She pre-packaged all the food, asked that we all wear masks for as much of the night as possible, and found a venue with an outdoor area that was more than large enough for us to space out.

It was perfect; until the sun went down, the temperature dropped, and I was desperate to move the party inside.

As the Covid-19 pandemic dragged through the summer months, many of us found ways to socialize, using the great outdoors as a security blanket, and gathering on rooftops, at beaches and parks, and in backyards. But as temperatures start to cool across most of the United States, with no end to the pandemic in sight, it’s daunting to think about riding out the cold, dark months back in our homes, cut off from our friends and extended family all over again.

It’s natural to wonder if there’s a safe way to take things indoors, and the answer is a resounding… maybe. But before you even consider inviting people into your home, there are a lot of things you should be thinking about.

“I think often people think their bubbles are much smaller than they really are.”

Consider the people in your space, and everyone in their lives

“Trying to figure out how to socialize safely is really difficult,” says Anne W. Rimoin, PhD, professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Global and Immigrant Health at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. Each individual you bring into your circle has their own circle, Rimoin says, and that’s gotten even more complicated as some workplaces and schools begin to open: “We forget about things like the housekeeper coming in, or people who take public transportation, or whose kids are back in school. I think often people think their bubbles are much smaller than they really are.”

There’s no way around it — getting together in an enclosed space is riskier than being outside. So, if you are thinking of bringing things indoors, you may have to be a lot more selective about the guest list. If your friends are taking more risks — or have more at stake — than you, it might not be a good idea to get together indoors. “If you have vulnerable people in your circle, you have to make choices,” Rimoin says. “Nobody gets to have their cake and eat it too, here.”

You also need to figure out exactly what level of exposure you’re looking at — and that can mean some awkward, albeit necessary, conversations.

“The big questions you need to ask people are: ‘Where are you going, and how are you getting there? Who else is in your life? Who are you working with? Where are they going?’ You have to have a frank conversation about what their exposures are,” Rimoin says. “It will seem invasive. It is invasive. But it could literally be a matter of life and death.”

Testing is a valuable tool when it comes to socializing safely. Van Den Wymelenberg says he and another family agreed to test their homes using environmental tests — swab tests for frequently touched surfaces to detect the presence of the virus within a residence — manufactured by Enviraltech, a company he consults for, before they socialized together, even in an outdoor setting.

“We did purchase some test kits, which we used in our house and a friend’s house,” he says. “If both were negative, we’d have a strong indication that all the people living in those houses were negative, and we’d get together.”

Environmental testing doesn’t fully replace human testing, though, and Van Den Wymelenberg notes price and availability may vary. If you live in a state where Covid-19 tests are available and affordable, you and your social circle can agree to a regular cadence of testing. While it’s not a surefire way to eliminate risk, it can certainly reduce transmissions. A recent study from researchers at Yale and Harvard universities concluded that the virus could be controlled on a college campus where 0.2% of students have an active infection if every student is tested every two days.

That doesn’t totally mitigate the threat, either. While regular testing is helpful, especially if your level of exposure is high, that kind of frequency probably isn’t realistic for most friend groups. You can, however, make it a point to be tested several days after any suspected or potential exposure or to simply be tested every two weeks or so.

Still, there isn’t a specific rate of testing that can keep you and your friends completely safe, and while easy-to-take, saliva-based, at-home tests might be an option in the future, nasal swab testing is still the gold standard, and it’s not readily accessible in many places. “There are still a lot of deficiencies,” adds Rimoin. “There are still a lot of false negatives, and you’re just not going to be able to test your way out with no risk.”

Consider what you’re doing in your space

If you’ve taken all the risks into account, you’ve narrowed down the invite list, and you’d still like to arrange an indoor get-together, the next thing to consider is what you’ll be doing. First things first, says Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, professor at the University of Oregon and director of the university’s Institute for Health in the Built Environment: Plan to wear a mask.

“No matter what, you are going to want to mask up more inside,” he says. “It’s hard to do that socially and make it fun, especially if you’ve gotten used to being together outside without masks, but look at it like: It’s this or nothing. So figure out a way to structure your socializing to wear the mask more often. Maybe it means you’re not going to eat together, or you’re only serving drinks that come through a straw that you can slip under your mask.”

The activities you choose will affect your level of risk, too. It may seem like a no-brainer, but sitting and talking from opposite sides of the room is different from belting out karaoke together on the couch. Whatever you’re doing, it’s smart to find ways to do it six feet apart.

“The six-foot rule is definitely not perfect,” says Van Den Wymelenberg, “but one of the things it does is minimizes the larger droplets.” That’d be the respiratory droplets expelled when a person talks, sneezes, or coughs, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports are the primary avenues of Covid-19 transmission. Those larger droplets can be minimized by wearing a mask and keeping your distance, but over time, the air in an enclosed room will fill with smaller, aerosolized droplets. And that’s where the space itself makes all the difference.

“Nobody gets to have their cake and eat it too, here.”

Consider the space itself

While the CDC remains unclear on whether the disease is technically “airborne,” studies find that Covid-19 is contained in aerosols — meaning the tiny particles expelled by regular breathing, not just the larger droplets pushed out by talking or coughing. That means the air quality in your space is extremely important.

“The number one thing is ventilation, ventilation, ventilation,” says Emily Anthes, author of The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness. “That is by far the most significant factor, especially with a disease spread by aerosols.”

If the ventilation in your house isn’t something you’ve examined, you’re not alone. “In a lot of ways, our homes become so familiar to us that we don’t think critically about them,” Anthes says. That applies to furniture layout, the materials and surfaces we touch most frequently, and airflow patterns.

Take a look around your space, Anthes suggests, and see what kind of changes can be made to make things safer. “Add leaves to the table, move chairs further away,” she says. “Anything you can do to spread people further apart is likely to be helpful.”

You should also familiarize yourself with the way air moves in your space, which, according to Van Den Wymelenberg, can help you be smarter about how you occupy it.

“One way to understand the airflow patterns is to blow some bubbles and see how they flow through the space,” he suggests. “You’ll see that there’s a direction.” Most of the time, air in a room moves like an invisible river. “There’s the center of the river and the eddies of the river. The center is moving from point A to point B. The eddies are off to the sides, where particles can start to accumulate.” The bubble-blowing, Van Den Wymelenberg adds, is an “imperfect but useful hack that can help you avoid, for instance, putting two people downstream from two other people.” The safest thing to do is split the invisible river — positioning people on either “bank.”

When it comes to ventilation, fresh air is your friend. That’s what makes it generally safer to congregate outdoors. “So, the question,” Van Den Wymelenberg says, “is how do you transition that inside?” The short answer is you bring in as much outdoor air as possible inside.

There are two numbers that matter when it comes to understanding the ventilation in your home. The first, air change rate, or ACR, measures how many times an hour the air in a space is replaced by new or clean air.

If you know the model of your HVAC system, fan, or air conditioning unit, you can find the “cubic feet per minute” rating — how much air it’s capable of moving — either in your owner’s manual or with a quick Google search. Convert that to cubic feet per hour by multiplying by 60, then divide that number by the volume of the room (length x width x height) to find the ACR.

The best commercial HVAC systems have an ACR between 20 and 30. But unless you live in an apartment building with a recently installed or upgraded system, chances are you’re not getting anywhere near that ACR.

“In your home with the windows shut, assume it’s less than one air change per hour,” says Van Den Wymelenberg. The more windows you open, the higher the ACR goes. Window position matters, too. “If you have windows on opposite walls you can open, you’ll feel that air coming through, and the ACR will be higher than if you only have windows on one wall.” If you can’t create a cross breeze, he says, consider adding a window fan. Whether you run it on intake or exhaust is up to you. It will be helpful on both settings, and while it’s likely more a bit more effective if it’s blowing fresh air into the room, if the weather is particularly cold, Van Den Wymelenberg says, the trade-off of not pulling frigid air directly inside is probably worth it.

The other number that comes into play is CADR, or clean air delivery rate. This is the volume of clean air being added to the space every minute. Most air filters and purifiers are rated by their CADR, and to filter aerosolized droplets you should be looking for a HEPA filter that delivers 300 cubic feet of clean air per minute.

Van Den Wymelenberg worked with colleagues at the University of Oregon and Portland State University to launch an online risk estimator for indoor gatherings. By inputting the number of people, the size of the space, the ventilation numbers, the amount of time spent in the room, and whether or not people are wearing masks, you can use the tool to estimate the number of infections that could result.

“It’s a probability calculator,” says Van Den Wymelenberg. “You put all this data in and see what the risk is, then you can try to improve the ventilation in the space to lower that risk. Imagine combining outside air with clean air, and ideally, between the two you’d be changing or cleaning the room air at something better than six air changes per hour.”

Consider staying outside

For his part, Van Den Wymelenberg says he’s “probably not comfortable crossing the threshold of having indoor guests,” though he does regularly socialize in his backyard and has been contemplating moving those gatherings into an outdoor shed with “big windows I can get a lot of air through” as the weather worsens. And while he’s not suggesting that it’s possible to gather indoors — or anywhere, really — without risk, “we have to figure out a way to get together, because mental health matters, too. A lot of people, unfortunately, don’t have access to safe outdoor spaces, so it’s totally important to figure this out.”

Ultimately, the safest way to socialize is to do it outside, even if that means bundling up and investing in a lot of hand warmers. And even then, says Rimoin, every get-together is a gamble. “I know people are more and more fatigued with this,” she says. “But it’s much easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble.”

As far as she’s concerned, bringing the party inside is just not worth the risk.

“We’re just not there yet, and we’re coming into flu season,” she says. “So, instead of thinking about how to expand your social circle, you might want to be thinking about how to limit it. We need to be doing our best to reduce the spread of the virus; not give it more opportunities.”

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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