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Experts say small gatherings can still be risky and advise people to remain vigilant. Compassionate Eye Foundation/Gary Burchell/Getty Images
  • Experts say even with COVID-19 vaccines being distributed, it’s still too early to start having small gatherings again.
  • They note it remains important to wear masks and continue to practice physical distancing, even after getting vaccinated.
  • It’s still unknown how effective the COVID-19 vaccines are against the new variants of the virus, experts say.

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.

Like millions of other people in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris LaGesse is laying low.

LaGesse, a retired teacher from Lake Zurich, Illinois, is aware that COVID-19 vaccines are now being distributed and that more are on the way.

She also knows that some states, counties, and cities are allowing people to return to outdoor dining and are ending the mandatory stay-at-home orders.

But she still doesn’t feel safe.

“I may feel a bit more comfortable going shopping and doing outdoor activities, but I will still be wearing a mask and social distancing,” she told Healthline.

Even after she and her family members get vaccinated, LaGesse said little will change for her family until a majority of the population is inoculated.

“The more virulent strains of the virus that are being discovered will likely change the scenario, too,” said LaGesse, who’ll be taking “special precautions when we do get together with my family.”

Daniel Scarpino, a Gulf War veteran who’s currently battling cancer, said he’ll be vigilant during his treatments.

But he still plans to live his life.

“I will err on the side of caution from here on out,” said Scarpino, who worked in his family’s restaurant and salad dressing business and served in Operation Desert Shield as well as Operation Desert Storm.

“I will not stop what I want to do as far as going to Utah to see the grandchildren and going sightseeing in our national and state parks. I will not go into hiding,” he told Healthline.

“But I will keep my mask with me and sanitizer. I will take all precautions that I feel are necessary to keep myself, family, and others safe,” he added.

As COVID-19 vaccines continue to be administered and hospitalizations decrease, people like LaGesse and Scarpino are wondering if and when they can begin to safely return to having small gatherings such as family get-togethers, birthday parties, and garden club meetings.

Is it really safe to do this again?

Every infectious disease expert interviewed by Healthline for this story had the same answer to this question:

No.

They said now is definitely not the time to stop being vigilant, despite how things may seem to be trending.

In Los Angeles County, for example, the number of new patients hospitalized with COVID-19 daily is about 500 a day. Earlier this month, it was 800 a day, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The decreasing population of people in hospital intensive care units across the country make it seem like things are getting better.

But scientists said that beneath the surface of these developments there are concerns.

Making any decision about viral pandemics requires a look at what’s likely to come not tomorrow, they said, but weeks and even months from now.

“Things will only get worse if people let their guard down now,” said Dr. Robert Turner Schooley, an infectious disease physician and senior director of international initiatives at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

He told Healthline that the danger is actually rising again because of the COVID-19 variants that have already landed in the United States.

Schooley said this is now a race between the vaccines and the variants.

But he’s optimistic.

While the timeline on the vaccine rollout was held up because of poor planning and not enough vaccines, Schooley said, the drug companies and federal government are now getting things up to speed.

Both the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines may soon join the Moderna and Pfizer shots, too.

“We can roll out these vaccines much more aggressively in the second quarter of this year,” Schooley said. “Until then, it would be unwise to mix and mingle. It just gives this virus more chances to replicate.”

Schooley said he understands that virus fatigue is a factor in the United States and around the world.

But he warns that if people are less diligent now, there will be even more cases than we saw in the most recent surge.

“With the current lifting of controls, we will see surges that, based on our projections, will be least 50 to 75 percent worse than it was a few weeks ago when it was so bad,” he said.

Schooley said we’ll see this happen in a month to 45 days if the country doesn’t continue to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.

“The U.K. variant is already here in San Diego, and the experience in the U.K. and Israel shows that it replaces the currently circulating virus within 4 to 6 weeks. The epidemic takes off again, unless you change isolation activities,” he said.

New studies suggest that while the vaccines do appear to be effective against these new variants, the new strains are more contagious.

And in some cases, reinfections are more likely with these variants.

Last April, COVID-19 hit the city of Manaus, Brazil, hard.

Researchers estimated that the number of people who contracted the disease was so high that the city could have actually reached a theoretical herd immunity threshold.

But now the city is suffering a second surge from a variant of the original virus.

The variant is potentially more infectious and reportedly could be more adept at fighting the vaccines.

Dr. Deborah Lehman is an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California Los Angeles.

The main focus of her research has been on the epidemiology and prevention of infectious diseases.

She told Healthline that while the general public was taken by surprise by the presence of these variants, scientists anticipated them.

No one who studies this is surprised that there are variants. This is what viruses do,” she said. “This is also what bacteria does to evade antibiotics.”

Lehman said a variant can be more contagious than the original virus.

“So, we need to be vigilant with distancing and masking. A variant can make a face mask ineffective,” she said. “Can a few particles stay in the air longer? Possibly.”

Lehman said the good news is that the vaccines work well.

The Pfizer vaccine appeared to lose only a small bit of its effectiveness against the variant first detected in South Africa during a laboratory study conducted by the company.

In that study, Pfizer and scientists from the University of Texas Medical Branch determined there was a less than two-fold reduction in antibody titer levels.

Although the research hasn’t been peer-reviewed, the scientists suggest that the vaccine would likely be effective in neutralizing a virus with the so-called E484K and N501Y mutations found in South Africa.

“If the variants reduce that a bit, you are still getting a very effective vaccine,” Lehman said.

Vaccines work by training our immune systems to create proteins known as antibodies that fight disease.

“It does other things that assist your immune system as well, some of which we cannot even test for,” Lehman said.

Lehman said scientists face a difficult task ahead in addressing the public’s reluctance to get vaccinated.

But it must be done, she said.

How long will these COVID-19 vaccines remain effective in the body?

“We are hoping for longer than a year,” Lehman said. “But if it is a year, this is nothing new. We require a vaccine every year for influenza. It would be great to see this virus die off. But might we have to keep vaccinating like the flu? It’s a possibility.”

Lehman said vaccines “trick our bodies” into believing they have seen the pathogen before. In the meantime, the immune system sends out its troops and helps develop immunity.

Experts said the vaccines prevent you from getting seriously ill, although they may prevent infection from the virus.

“The hope is that it will also prevent the infection,” Lehman said. “Even if the vaccine in the end just prevents you from having to go to the hospital and the ICU, that turns a disease into something more like a bad cold.”

Healthline asked people in every region of the United States to share their thoughts about when they’ll feel safe venturing out again and attending small gatherings.

Larry Shuler, who lives in San Diego County, said that for the foreseeable future he’ll only attend small gatherings in which attendants show proof of vaccination.

“I personally think that by June or July, with most people vaccinated, we will be able to have get-togethers again,” he told Healthline.

“However, it should only be for those that have proof they have been vaccinated. This will also be the case for restaurants and bars, who will allow people in with legitimate proof of being vaccinated and COVID free,” Shuler said.

She’s vaccinated, he’s not

Dorie Griggs, a hospital-based chaplain from Roswell, Georgia, has received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

But her husband hasn’t.

“He is not in a high-risk group, so it may be a while before he can get the vaccine,” Griggs told Healthline.

She and her husband limit their exposure by avoiding going out in general as well as wearing masks and physical distancing when they do go out.

“I don’t anticipate being able to get together in small groups until more people are immunized. If all in my small group are immunized I would gather with them, but really only about two additional couples,” she said.

New Yorkers showing patience

Justin Reilly, an attorney, activist and film producer from New York City, said he won’t feel safe for a long time.

“I won’t do anything inside until everyone who wants to get vaccinated actually does and only if we do see huge reductions in transmission,” he told Healthline.

“I will still social distance and mask and won’t actually feel safe, but I will be willing to take some more risks despite the danger. But I am quite concerned that people will let their guard down too soon,” he said.

Jaime Cunningham, who also lives in New York City, said he’s gotten a few friends together while masked and physically distanced.

“But only outside. Never indoors,” he told Healthline.

Cunningham thinks this process is going to be slow.

“It will take another year until we can loosen up, maybe February or March of next year,” he predicted. “Next winter will be very telling as far as how good the vaccine really is, I think. We will forgo any international travel until into next year.”

What the county says

Ginny Blum, who lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, said: “My ‘nanny county’ will decide for me. I expect restrictions through this year. There will continue to be little fires of virus breaking out for some time.”

Blum told Healthline that her county has been “very active in fighting the pandemic: quick to close, slow to reopen, mask mandate in April, offering in-home testing if you need it. Not a place that left it up to individuals to decide what the right thing to do should be.”

Outside when possible

Cindy A. Roush-Hahn, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, said she and her husband have scheduled their vaccine appointment for Feb. 22.

“We gather with friends now, outside when possible, and practice social distancing. I walk 3 miles outdoors with two neighbor gals every day. No masks,” she told Healthline.

“We wear masks to the grocery store and any other place they are required,” she added. “I have sanitizer in my car and purse. We eat in a restaurant weekly for lunch. We are the first customers in the restaurant and I clean off our table with wipes.”

“We will feel more comfortable getting together in larger groups other than our neighbors by summer,” Roush-Hahn noted.

In Fauci they trust

Several people told Healthline that they’re simply going to heed the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden, and let science be their guide.

“I trust Dr. Fauci completely. He is on top of this pandemic,” said Suzanne McMullen Schafer. “President Biden knew this also. That’s why Dr. Fauci is in the job he now has.”

Tom Conroy, who lives in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, said: “I’ll feel safe exactly when Fauci says it’s safe. Not a moment sooner.”

A ‘lose/lose situation’

Kaaren Kozlow, a teacher’s assistant from Columbia, Maryland, said she’ll be ready for a social setting once the people in her circle are vaccinated.

“I’m going back to school without benefit of vaccination because our governor says that the benefits of a vaccine are marginal in a school setting. I’m livid, but I will wear a mask on top of an N95 and a face shield,” she told Healthline.

Kozlow calls this a lose/lose situation.

“I’m petrified,” she said. “But really what choice do I have? The board of education and governor are sending me back with threats of termination if I don’t. I will go, heavily masked.”

Healthcare worker hopes for the best

Rebecca Soliday, who works for a hospice in Minneapolis, Minnesota, received her first vaccine on Friday, Jan. 29.

“After I’ve had the second vaccination, I will feel better as far as contracting it myself,” she told Healthline.

“But I won’t feel completely better until everyone in my household has been vaccinated and I won’t venture out much more until it’s under more control and more people are vaccinated,” she added.

Police officer playing it safe

Randy DePhillips, a retired police officer who’s married with a family in Des Moines, Iowa, said he won’t attend any social gatherings until 80 percent of the public is vaccinated.

“But even then, I wouldn’t feel totally safe. I think the days of a hug and/or handshake aren’t in the future for some time,” he told Healthline.

The eternal optimists

Ralph Parrot, 80, who lives in Fairfax Station, Virginia, said he and his wife were vaccinated with their first shot on Wednesday.

Parrot said he and his wife’s dream is to be able to have the family’s normal week at the beach this year in mid-August with all 20-plus people being able to attend.

“Ever the optimists, we have rented a big house down at Sandbridge, Virginia, to accommodate everyone,” he told Healthline. “This will be our 28th consecutive year. Even though last year was sparsely attended, we still had it.”

The system isn’t working

Debbie Brooks Clouse, a Las Vegas, Nevada, resident, said she’ll be ready to attend small gatherings with friends in 2025.

And she’s only half-kidding.

“I live in Vegas and the system they are using isn’t working to get people the vaccine,” she told Healthline.

“They are closing centers and canceling appointments daily and they are only giving them to ages 70-plus right now, but they are adding teachers to the approved list,” Clouse said.

Hawaii is safer than California

Steve Ruderman and his family just returned to their Southern California home after spending a month on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

“The COVID numbers there were so much lower than California that we felt much safer there,” said Ruderman, who’s not eligible yet for a vaccine but did get tested to travel to Maui.

“They are very good on wearing masks everywhere and you can find so many places on the island where there were no people or very small crowds,” he told Healthline. “The restaurants on Maui are running at 30 percent and outdoor dining so again feeling much safer.”

Ruderman said that being back on the mainland, “we are comfortable eating outdoors but wary of indoor dining and any kind of large crowds.”

First outing since March 2020

Sue Kelson, a wedding planner from Dallas, Texas, has received the first dose of vaccine and planned to attend a “very, very small” birthday party this weekend.

“I will still wear a mask and will socially distance and the party will be COVID responsible as well,” she told Healthline. “This will be my first outing since March 9, 2020, outside of work,”

Some remain defiant

Jay Reece, who’s from Bolger, Texas, and now lives in California, said he never really stopped dining out during this pandemic.

“We knew where to dine and have drinks the entire time throughout Southern California,” he told Healthline.

Reece said the restaurants he’s been going to are “modern-day speakeasies” that you enter through the back door.

He found out about these places through word of mouth.

“They sure did need support and still do,” he said. “After 30 days of the heavy lockdown that started in March, I lost it. I had to go somewhere.”

Reece said that at first it was only takeout, “which we don’t normally do.”

“We went all over SoCal for takeout. Big Bear, numerous beach communities, Palm Springs, high desert, Lake Arrowhead, and more. Then, the hidden places. It was fun,” he said.

Reece said that “many of us feel” relatively safe and that most establishments have physically distanced their seating.

“Many bar areas are not accessible. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. Masks are worn when entering, exiting, and when not seated. Hand washing is always necessary,” he said.

“Many have gone to paper or disposable menus. Many establishments don’t have happy hour or specials. Many restaurants and bars you wait for the table and seating to be disinfected before being seated,” he said. “It’s all about common sense from the establishment to the patrons.”

None of his friends are anti-vaxxers

Tom Fielding, who lives with his wife in Pasadena, California, got his first vaccine dose 11 days ago.

But he doesn’t think this is the time for her family or anyone to let their guard down.

“My wife is under 65. I want to wait until she receives her two doses,” he told Healthline. “I think any gatherings after that would be with my friends who are also getting the vaccine.”

“Fortunately, none of my friends are anti-vaxxers. Since many of my close friends are alums of the Harvard of the West, also known as San Diego State University, we are highly aware of the benefits of vaccines,” he noted.