Safely Expanding Your Social Circle

July 2020

It may seem like the world around us is quickly returning to “normal,” but what about that nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you something just isn’t right? With the scare of the recent surge of cases in states that have reopened or never closed, is it really safe to start socializing for extended periods of time with those outside of our households? And if we do feel comfortable expanding our social circles, what will that look like throughout the summer and into the fall?

Following months of quarantine, and close interaction with only those who share our living quarters, we, as humans, are longing to reboot our emotional relationships with friends and family outside of our households. Jumping back into the unknown waters of socialization might be a bit unsettling for many, and even create high levels of anxiety for some. Before reintegrating ourselves into society, we must assess what level of risk we are willing to take concerning COVID-19 exposure.

The CDC has published guidelines to help us navigate the slow return to socialization, whether it’s attending social gatherings, heading out to a restaurant, or returning to the salon. Should we choose to take the plunge and engage in more activities and gatherings, there are tools to assist in deciding how to safely expand our circles and venture out of our homes. The Cleveland Clinic offers tips to determine which social activities are safe to return to, and what modifications might need to be made. Although the precautions necessary to return to social activities may not feel “normal,” they are worth the extra effort.

At this point, since we’re all nearly experts on social distancing, the guidelines for reemerging into the social world seem like common sense, and probably fall in line with protocol we are already following. Numerous studies have confirmed that staying outdoors and socially distant is the safest way to spend time with friends and loved ones. If you, or someone you know, is planning a gathering, pay attention to the weather and keep the guest list to a minimum. If you show up at a friend’s house and feel uncomfortable with the number of people, or the lack of social distancing, head home. And of course, it’s imperative to continue a hygiene and self-care regimen, such as frequent hand and surface washing, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and wearing masks, when possible. Hosting and attending social gatherings will require much more preparation and planning than in pre-COVID days, but the benefit of human interaction may outweigh the aggravation.

If someone in your household is vulnerable, auto-immune compromised, or at high risk for contracting the disease, certainly your social circle will not be expanding as rapidly as others, if at all. Should this be the case, you may continue to adhere to the quarantine guidelines of previous months. If visits with Grandma or Grandpa resume, perhaps reconsider the initial bear hug and snacks around the living room coffee table in exchange for fist bumps and iced tea on the porch. Take some time to consider who you feel comfortable letting into your social bubble. The smaller your social circle and the less people you socialize with on a regular basis, the better. Which is not to say it needs to be the same nine friends or family members repeatedly, but those second cousins stopping by New Jersey on their way home from a baseball tournament might want to just wave from the car as they pass by.

Some may decide to interact on a more intimate level with other families or members outside of their household, such as sharing a meal or engaging in an indoor activity. Before accepting an invitation to your brother’s birthday dinner, be sure to have a detailed conversation with him first to decipher whether or not you’re all on the same page when it comes to taking precautionary measures. Your quarantine and post-quarantine lifestyles and restrictions should align. And as always, adhere to New Jersey or any local guidelines on gatherings, both indoor and outdoor.

The issue of food sharing will certainly come into play if you begin to socialize and celebrate occasions in groups. For some, sharing a meal plays an integral role in celebrating family and cultural traditions, yet certain precautions must be taken, and a few may find it easier to avoid serving food altogether. Any family style meal or buffet should be avoided, along with any plates or platters with repeated touching by multiple people. Take a hiatus from the traditional cheese plate or crudité platter. Try for individually wrapped items or plated portions for each guest. Be sure all guests wash their hands before serving or eating the food, and keep hand sanitizer easily accessible. Ideally, the person preparing the food should wear a mask if serving members outside of the household.

And what about the kids? Is it safe for them to return to playdates and outdoor birthday parties? Many of us have seen the negative effects that homeschooling and lack of socialization have had on our children over the last few months, and for some the picture is not pretty. Keep in mind that children, especially the younger ones, will have a difficult time social distancing and understanding the reasons behind it; so choosing whether or not to allow children to socialize may take a bit more consideration. Choosing just one or two families with children the same age, who have the same risk tolerance and social outreach is best. Be prepared to have that somewhat awkward conversation with the parents about their safety habits and daily interactions outside of the home. A New York Times piece from June suggests creating playdate limitations, and sharing those limitations with parents and children before the meeting.

As we trepidatiously foray back into the world of socialization, the most important thing to remember is to take suitable cautions before engaging in any activity that could potentially undermine the sacrifices we’ve made to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Expand your circle slowly and select your companions carefully, so you may enjoy the company of others while limiting the risk of exposure.