When Can I Go to a Bar Again After Being Fully Vaccinated?

People at a bar with face masks.

Phynart Studio / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • While it is now safer for fully vaccinated people to socialize and dine out, bars tend to be riskier, as alcohol can affect people’s ability to follow COVID-19 safety protocols.
  • It’s safest to go to bars where there is outdoor seating, lots of room between tables, and an expectation that patrons and servers wear masks.
  • If you go to a bar, experts recommend keeping your visit short and being mindful of social distancing.

Bars are typically seen as spaces for people to celebrate, socialize, and forget their troubles. As more bars reopen in the coming months, and a year since the onset of the pandemic, that kind of space may seem appealing. But many are wondering, for people who are fully vaccinated, is it really safe?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised its guidelines this month, saying that fully vaccinated people can congregate in private settings with minimal risk without masks. But experts caution people—even those who are fully vaccinated—to remain vigilant in their COVID-19 precautions when in public and among large groups of people.

“I don't think it's time for people to put their safeguards down and to start venturing out into large and medium-sized gatherings without masks,” Jonathan Leizman, MD, chief medical officer at Premise Health, tells Verywell.

Bars can be particularly tricky. In a pre-pandemic world, many bars and clubs were designed to facilitate interaction through conversation, dancing, and singing. While the available vaccines are astoundingly effective at protecting you, and likely others, from COVID-19, experts still recommend thinking twice about heading out to one for a drink.

What to Look For in a Bar

If you do decide to patronize a bar, make sure to be thoughtful about how the specific setup of that business may facilitate safety.

To start, Timothy Brewer, MD, MPH, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA School of Public Health and at the School of Medicine, recommends checking out the bar’s website to see whether they follow, and require their patrons to follow, COVID-19 safety protocol. For example, it’s a good sign if the business limits capacity, requests patrons wear masks when not eating or drinking, and has all its staff wear masks.

Once you arrive, look out for any indication that the bar might put you at risk of exposure. Peter Rabinowitz, MD, MPH, professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington, recommends staying away from businesses that appear to be crowded with young people, who haven't been eligible for vaccination until recently, if at all. Look for “quieter” bars with fewer people instead.

Leizman says the basic principles of COVID-19 safety can be applied to bar settings. Continue to wear a mask, stay socially distanced from others, and give preference to outdoor spaces over indoor ones.

“Immediately you can tell—if someone's going into a crowded or busy bar and there's not social distancing, it's a large gathering of people and masks are coming off as individuals drink or eat—it increases the risk,” Leizman says.

To minimize exposure risk, it’s best if tables and seating are spread far apart. If you’re going to be sitting indoors, also keep an eye out for how the building is ventilated. High ceilings and open windows are generally a good sign. A bar with an air filtration system that cycles through air relatively frequently is also going to be safer, though it can be difficult for the typical bar-goer to vet this type of protocol.

What This Means For You

Bars, like restaurants, can vary in how they handle COVID-19 safety measures. If you are fully vaccinated and decide to visit a bar, make sure there is ample room between yourself and other guests, prioritize outdoor seating and good ventilation, keep your mask on when not eating and drinking, and keep it short. Still, experts recommend against going to crowded bars altogether.

Keep the Mask Close and Stay Outdoors

Beware, too, of spaces with loud music. When people sing and talk loudly, they tend to expel more viral particles if they're infected with the virus. With music may also come more dancing. Activities that involve being close to others, like dancing and standing in crowded rooms, can be risky, especially if you’re in that space for a long period of time. 

“The closer you are to an infectious person, the more likely they are to transmit to you if you're susceptible,” Brewer says. "The longer you are together, the more likely transmission is to occur.”

Another consideration that sets bars apart from many other public spaces is the high levels of alcohol consumption, which typically impairs judgment. 

“In general, alcohol probably makes people less likely to follow guidelines,” Brewer says. “I think the best thing to do would be to make sure that you drink in moderation and certainly make sure that you continue to follow public health recommendations.”

If, after a night out, you go home to an unvaccinated family member or roommate who is unvaccinated, the CDC guidelines currently do not recommend you get tested or quarantine. But because we still don’t know for sure how well vaccines limit transmission, it’s recommended that you be extra careful when socializing with unvaccinated household members, especially if that person is highly susceptible to severe COVID-19.

Wait for Herd Immunity

Only one in five Americans have been fully vaccinated. Until upwards of 70% of people are immune and the number of daily cases drops significantly, Leizman says gathering in such large groups continues to pose a great risk.

“People should get the vaccine, assuming they don't have any medical contraindications—[a reason not to receive a vaccine due to the harm that it would cause the patient],” Leizman says. “They're the best thing that someone can do to protect himself or herself, to protect family and loved ones…and ultimately to protect other individuals at the restaurants and bars that we hope to get back to go into full swing.”

The current CDC guidelines indicate it’s OK to gather with small or medium-sized groups of fully vaccinated people in private settings. While we wait for greater herd immunity, it may be safest to limit social interactions to these kinds of gatherings.

“The risk with variants continues to develop and we are not out of the woods, by any means… in the midst of a changing situation it's still a good idea to be careful,” Rabinowitz says. “I personally am not about to go to a crowded bar, even though I've been vaccinated.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.