The spring and summer months made it easy — whatever “easy” means during a global pandemic — to have relatively safe social gatherings outdoors, where the coronavirus does not spread as easily. As we face the fall and winter months, most of the country must contend with the reality that colder temperatures will make getting together even harder.
Public health experts know that the virus spreads largely from person-to-person contact and that the risk increases exponentially when people are indoors. That leads to serious concerns around viral spread in the winter when our time is mostly spent inside.
“We’re going to have to adjust once fall and winter come, at least in most of the U.S.,” said Lisa Miller, professor of epidemiology at the University of Colorado School of Public Health. “The very basics of COVID are the more we have contact with each other, the more transmission we’re going to see. So we need to think creatively and be diligent about trying to maintain social distance and mask-wearing as much as we can to minimize the increase.”
Kaz Nelson, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, acknowledged the exhaustion many are feeling as they continue to stay home, wear masks and socially distance. But she stressed that these tactics are used for good reason.
“I hope people continue to remain sensitive to cues from people in public health who are trying to curb this pandemic,” Nelson said. “I know there is a lot of fatigue related with staying at home and the physical distancing that has been necessary.”
She fears the public will fall back into old social behaviors as the cold-weather months bring frustrating barriers to social gatherings, and she emphasized that the public has to fight the urge as much as possible.
The fall and winter are sure to bring new pandemic challenges, but experts predict we’ll find less risky ways to socialize both virtually and in person as temperatures drop. Here’s what we might see:
Expect an increase in virtual celebrations and performances.
David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, noted that the isolation, loneliness and depression that the winter season already brings to many may only be worsened by the social limitations and increased stress of the pandemic.
“There is a real chance that COVID-19 could compound this sense of isolation and aloneness,” Aronoff said. “One of the ways that we have seen some people combat that has been with the adaptation of technology to help connect with other people. Some are becoming more facile with smartphones, even older adults who may previously not have had much familiarity with smartphone technology or tablet technology.”
Many of us leaned into Zoom happy hours and other virtual gatherings at the beginning of the pandemic. While we may have done fewer in recent weeks, Aronoff said it might be wise to utilize those options again in the colder months.
“Certainly, the ability to create communities through the internet is not the same as being in person, but it can be really helpful and an important way for us to check up on each other,” he added.
Beyond virtual birthday parties and holiday celebrations, Aronoff expects more comedians and musicians to utilize digital technologies for live-stream performances, as some are doing already.
“We’re seeing musicians who are struggling right now, we’re seeing comedians who are struggling right now. But they are finding ways to connect by having special performances online and those are helpful,” he said.
Aronoff also stressed that not everyone is privileged to have easy access to technology so those who can safely see loved ones in virtual gatherings should be grateful for that at least.
Outdoor winter sports will likely be a relatively safe way to socialize.
When snow starts to fall in certain parts of the country, Nelson expects winter sports to provide many with much-needed chances for socialization.
Winter sports — activities like skiing, ice skating or sledding — may come with a lower risk, especially if you engage in them on your own or as a household.
“Outdoor winter enthusiasts will get a lot of their social time and social needs met on the ice or on the sledding hill or cross-country skiing,” Nelson said. “If you have the right gear and equipment, there can be a lot of recreational enjoyment that’s unique to areas where there is ice and snow.”
She pointed out that when dressed properly for winter sports, participants are somewhat protected from transmitting the coronavirus, as long as all guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are also followed. Winter sports can call for gloves on the hands and goggles over the eyes, and everybody can and should wear face coverings like ski masks.
Restaurants may figure out new ways to offer outdoor dining into the colder months.
Restaurants that have been heavily reliant on outdoor tables for risk mitigation are likely to think creatively about dining al fresco as the temperatures start to drop, Miller said.
“A lot of this is learning as we go and seeing what’s possible and what works,” she said.
Miller suggested that people will also likely think differently about what they can tolerate weather-wise. What may have been too cold before may be something they’ll choose to endure now for a chance at a safer interaction.
“Certainly, sometimes it’s not possible to be outside, but I think we can do more than we have before because we’re pushed,” she said.
Anticipate more drive-in social events across the country.
In recent months, drive-in movies, festivals and concerts have become the new norm because of their low-risk nature. When less-than-pleasant weather becomes our reality, Nelson predicts even more drive-in gatherings.
People can stay warm inside their heated cars, no matter the temperature outside, while participating in everything from organized events like movies to drive-by celebrations for religious holidays to friends waving at one another from their car windows.
Large-scale meeting facilities could potentially transform into spaces for smaller socially distant gatherings.
Convention and conference centers across the country have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of square feet of empty space. Aronoff noted there could be opportunities during the winter months for small numbers of people to gather in those spaces for socially distanced and well-ventilated meet-ups.
Operators of large meeting facilities could receive guidance from their local health department or public health experts on how to create an environment that is as safe as it can be for the public.
“There could be lots of intent put into making sure there’s good spacing, good ventilation, good social distancing and good opportunities for hand hygiene. Now is an opportunity to think about doing some events indoors that are purposefully designed to exist during this pandemic,” Aronoff said.
He added that plans would need to adhere to CDC guidelines and should be canceled if the rate of infection in the community rises.
People may increase the use of COVID-19 social bubbles.
It’s safe to assume that we’ll be staying home more (or should be) in the next few months given the chance of a second wave and the limitations of being outdoors. Enter the bubble.
Coronavirus social bubbles are groups of family members or friends who either shelter in place together or forgo social interaction with anyone outside their bubble in order to see those inside the bubble in a safe and low-risk manner.
Nelson said she expects people to use the bubble strategy when planning their social gatherings for the winter season. But she emphasized that this option is only for those who can truly avoid the folks outside their bubble and are willing to do so.
“It really requires a lot of commitment to employ the bubble strategy. The bubble doesn’t work if you’re in multiple bubbles or with people who are in multiple bubbles,” she added.
If one person sees someone outside the bubble ― especially in a high-risk setting ― that could increase the likelihood of COVID-19 exposure not just for them but for other members of the bubble. In other words, if you are going the bubble route, keep it small and make it airtight.
You can definitely count on experts stressing that you get a flu shot.
Miller highlighted the importance of preventive care, particularly vaccines, as winter approaches.
“When we’re thinking about the winter, we always think about influenza,” she said. “I think that will be a challenge because some of the ways people were vaccinated in the past ― for instance, at work ― might not be available. But it’s still really important and we want to make sure we are using all of the protective measures we can.”
Everyone who can safely get a flu shot should do so— including children ages 6 months and older, who should also get any vaccinations they have missed during the pandemic.
Miller noted that the same safety measures we take for COVID-19 “should also protect us from other respiratory viruses.”
Bottom line: As we begin spending more time indoors during a time of year when respiratory illnesses are already more common, people need to keep prioritizing preventive care to stay healthy.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.