While in many countries the full on lockdowns that were seen at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic have come to an end, most territories worldwide continue to maintain various restrictions to help prevent further spread of the virus.
While the lifting of lockdown means that many of us can start returning to work and getting our lives back on track, we still need to practice good behaviour and exercise caution. However it can be confusing to know what you can and can’t do, including how to socialise in a safe and responsible way.
Time to Socialise Again
For many global citizens, one of the biggest challenges of lockdown was the lack of social interaction with family members and friends. Zoom quizzes can be fun, but they’re nowhere near the same as going out for dinner or having a few drinks with friends.
The importance of social interaction in a mental health context is widely known, which may explain various reports that significantly higher numbers of people have been experiencing anxiety and loneliness during and post-lockdown.
At the same time, it is perfectly natural to feel some apprehension when planning to meet up with your friends and family for what may be the first time in months. This could be a particular concern if people within your close circle are vulnerable or have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they get COVID-19. Likewise parents may be torn between wanting their children to re-establish relationships with friends they haven't seen for months, while also wanting to keep them safe.
Control What You Can Control
The biggest challenge we all face in our "new normal" is that we're not fully in control of our level of risk. While COVID-19 is likely to feel like a mild influenza infection for most people, particularly if you're in good health, we all would rather avoid getting ill in the first place both for our own sake and to protect others.
You may have felt more secure during lockdown, particularly if you weren’t leaving the house or interacting with anyone else. However now that the world is gradually reopening, the risk of infection remains even if you diligently follow the oft-repeated guidance around handwashing and personal hygiene.
The best way to tackle this challenge is to focus on what you can control. So here are five considerations to help you socialise safely and mitigate your risk of getting COVID-19.
Who Are you Socialising With?
The most significant factor when planning who you will socialise with is likely to be trust.
Ask yourself how your friends spent lockdown and the last few weeks since they've been able to go outside again. If they have been filling their Instagram story with pictures of themselves at crowded beaches or bars, they have potentially had exposure to hundreds of people and could could pose a higher risk of the virus.
Before planning your first post-lockdown social meetup, talk to your friends about what you've all been doing and their attitude to the pandemic. If your friends think wearing a mask is nonsense and social distancing is unnecessary, you may want to consider postponing your plans until you feel safer meeting them.
Many countries have also implemented policies around ‘social bubbles’ which refer to a small group of close friends and family that agree to only meet up with each other, to minimise the risk of infection. Even if your country does not have such measures in place, you may want to consider making a social bubble of your own – the important point is that every member of the group has to stick to it and not break the bubble by meeting up with others.
Where Will You Meet Up?
First consider where you will meet up. Most countries have different guidelines around social distancing, including how many people you can meet up with and the location. It’s therefore important to check local public health advice before you arrange a meet up.
While many restaurants may be open again, you may prefer to meet outside where the risk of transmission via air droplets is viewed to be lower, or in a private space rather than a crowded public spot. Getting out in the fresh air for a game of tennis or a family bike ride will also help to boost your energy levels.
If you do decide to opt for a restaurant, remember it’s best not to share food with others and that many restaurants have strict social distancing measures in place, so you may not all be able to sit at the same table. Call ahead to find out what restrictions are in place to help ease any anxiety you may have and ensure you are prepared.
What’s Measure Will You Take?
Next consider any additional precautions you need to take when you do meet up. For example, will you adhere to social distancing guidelines, wear a mask, or bring your own food?
The acceptance of the benefits of wearing a mask or an alternative facial covering is now widespread. Certain places including office spaces, restaurants and shopping centres are now mandating the wearing of a mask, so if you are meeting up in a public place remember to check the rules first. Even if you are meeting in a private setting, you may want to consider wearing a mask and asking your friends to do so too.
Discuss with those in your social bubble and agree an approach you are all comfortable with. For example, a socially distanced picnic in your garden where you all bring your own food and cutlery could be a great way of ensuring you can spend time with loved ones while limiting your potential exposure.
Avoid Crowded Places
Although most countries have limits on the number of people that can assemble at official gatherings and events, this often does not apply to certain public spaces such as beaches or walking trails.
The safest way to socialise is to try and stick to meeting only those you know and avoiding as much contact as possible with strangers. Try to opt for more secluded spots and maintain social distancing of at least 1 metre (3 foot) with others as recommended by the World Health Organization. If you arrive somewhere and it’s already busy and overcrowded, you might want to think about a plan B.
Limit the Time You Spend with People
Even though you will likely want to spend as much time as you can with those you haven't seen much recently, time is still a significant risk factor for COVID-19 transmission. If a friend or family member is asymptomatic, your risk of catching COVID-19 will grow the longer you spend with them.
To help minimise your risk, you may prefer to plan an hour catch up with one or two friends a couple of times a week, rather than meeting up with everyone at the same time and spending the full day together.
Socialising Safely in a COVID-19 World
It’s understandable that most of us want to get out and start socialising again, albeit while being mindful of the potential risks of COVID-19. The situations and environments in which you feel safe will be personal to you. To help manage your concerns better our top tips for safe socialising are to meet:
- While maintaining social distancing and/or wearing a mask;
- For a short length of time; and
- With people you trust have been mitigating their own risk of catching COVID-19.
Remember to follow any guidance put in place by the authorities where you live and as always, you should continue to maintain high personal hygiene standards, particularly when it comes to regular handwashing.