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How To Plan a COVID-Safe Gathering When Not Everyone Is Vaccinated

Family gathering with face masks.

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Key Takeaways

  • Per the CDC, one vaccinated and one unvaccinated household can gather without wearing masks and physical distancing if none of the unvaccinated people are at risk of severe COVID-19.
  • Involving more than one unvaccinated household in a gathering increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
  • Regardless of vaccination status, the CDC still discourages having medium- and large-sized gatherings.

As more Americans get vaccinated every day, it’s important to have a clear idea of what fully vaccinated people can and cannot do. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released official guidelines and public health recommendations for individuals fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

You are considered fully vaccinated 14 days after your second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or your single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

While fully vaccinated people can gather with others who are in the same boat without wearing a mask, there are different recommendations when an unvaccinated household is involved.

"The CDC states that if one unvaccinated and one vaccinated household are visiting, social distancing and masks are not necessary," Richard C. Wender, MD, chair of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, tells Verywell. "If more than one unvaccinated household is part of the gathering, more precautions are needed."

We're still a few months away from the vaccine being made available to all—every adult will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, according to President Joe Biden's recent announcement. So, until then, navigating social situations will be tricky. It may be difficult to plan for upcoming holidays or family celebrations safely when some family members are fully vaccinated and others are not. 

“The challenge in following the new CDC guidance is that it only applies to fully vaccinated people, and most people in the country are not vaccinated yet—especially younger people," Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, REHS, assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, tells Verywell. "If there are unvaccinated people from more than one household or from a high-risk household, you still need to social distance and wear masks."

Although it’s challenging, holding a safe family gathering is not impossible. It requires a bit of planning and involves taking precautions every step of the way, before, during, and after the event.

What This Means For You

Even if your entire household has been fully vaccinated already, it’s best to gather with other vaccinated individuals or only one unvaccinated household. Engaging with multiple unvaccinated households increases the risk of virus transmission. If you plan on gathering for upcoming holidays, keep your event small. The CDC advises against all large gatherings.

Before the Gathering

There are plenty of precautionary steps to take when planning a small gathering. Keep in mind that the CDC still strongly discourages medium- and large-sized gatherings, regardless of vaccination status. “Large gatherings of unvaccinated people are still a terrible idea,” Labus says.

Quarantine Beforehand

Since there will be a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated people, it’s best to quarantine (or avoid risky behavior) for 14 days before the gathering to ensure everyone’s safety. Wender advises against eating at an indoor restaurant, getting a haircut, or socializing with unvaccinated people. “With the availability of testing, it is possible to add an additional measure of safety by getting tested a few days before any gathering,” he says.

Limit the Number of Invited Households

“There isn't a set number of people you should invite, but smaller is better,” Labus says. The CDC recommends limiting the gathering to one vaccinated and one unvaccinated household only, given that no unvaccinated family members are at risk of severe COVID-19.

Inviting people from multiple unvaccinated households puts everyone at more risk of virus transmission. “Gathering with more than one vaccinated household and only one unvaccinated household is certainly safer than including several unvaccinated households,” Wender says.

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It’s always important to be cautious, especially if COVID-19 rates are rising in your area. “Keep an eye on the COVID-19 infection rate in the areas where guests are coming from," Wender says. "If rates are rising, that may be a sign of more infectious variants. That might be a good time to not visit others."

During the Gathering

“Once at the visit, take the precautions we’ve all become familiar with,” Wender says. Throughout the course of the gathering, maintaining social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands frequently remains important.

Wear Masks and Maintain Physical Distance

According to the CDC, a fully vaccinated household and one unvaccinated household can gather without wearing masks or physical distancing as long as no unvaccinated person is at risk of severe COVID-19.

“If you want to add unvaccinated people from multiple households, you need to wear masks, as the risk of disease goes up,” Labus says. In this case, eating in shifts or maintaining a distance of six feet while eating might be the safest because masks cannot be worn while dining.

Practice Good Hand Hygiene

Everyone should wash their hands frequently with soap and water or use sanitizers with at least 60% alcohol before and after touching their face or mask. The host must ensure that there is enough soap in the bathroom or sink area, or that sanitizer is readily available at all times.

To limit contact with shared items as much as possible, one vaccinated family member can be the designated person to serve all food and handle condiments. It’s also important to regularly disinfect all high-touch surfaces.

Stay Outdoors

“Spend time outdoors as much as possible," Wender says. "Keep rooms ventilated and maintain as much distance as possible." The CDC recommends hosting gatherings outdoors because an individual is less likely to breathe in respiratory droplets with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, out in the open air rather than in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.

“Even though vaccinated people can gather without worrying about social distancing, giving people enough room to spread out is going to reduce the risk of disease transmission,” Labus says. “Remember, the vaccine is not 100% effective, so vaccinated people can still be infected.”

After the Gathering

Safety precautions should not end once the gathering is over. Anyone who attended still has a responsibility to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

“The biggest risk after a potential exposure is infecting others," Wender says. "If you decided to take the risk of a larger gathering, 10 days of relative isolation makes sense. Getting tested five days after a potential exposure is another smart step." If you’ve been fully vaccinated and don’t exhibit any COVID-19 symptoms, you can choose not to do these steps.

“The newest CDC guidance says that vaccinated people do not have to be quarantined or tested if there is an exposure. That is quite a change from what we have done over the past year,” Labus says. However, they must continue wearing masks, maintaining distance, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.

The host should also keep a list of the guests’ names in case of potential contact tracing needs. “The likelihood that a vaccinated individual will harbor the virus and spread it to someone else is quite low—but the new variants are a cause for some worry and warrant our all taking extra precautions,” Wender says.

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.

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People. Updated March 8, 2021.

  2. The White House. Fact Sheet: President Biden to Announce All Americans to be Eligible for Vaccinations by May 1, Puts the Nation on a Path to Get Closer to Normal by July 4th. Updated March 11, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated. Updated March 9, 2021.