Family Gatherings Aren't as Safe as You May Think During COVID-19

July 10, 2020 - Katie McCallum

We're all ready to start seeing our family and friends again, and continuing to forgo all social activities — especially gathering with your family — can seem like a lot to ask.

But, given that COVID-19 spreads easily from person-to-person, the reality is that a family gathering is, unfortunately, just as unsafe as any other social gathering. Social distancing includes reducing close contact with people who are not a part of your household — even if he or she is a part of your extended family.

In fact, we sometimes see members of the same extended family, from grandchildren to grandparents, being admitted to the hospital for COVID-19 — and the culprit is often a recent family gathering.

Rather than planning an in-person gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic, the safest way to stay connected with your family is to gather virtually.

If you do decide to take the risk and host a family gathering, here's how to make it a little safer. Or, if you're attending one, make sure whoever is hosting the gathering is taking extra precautions.

High-risk family members should attend virtually

Anyone can get COVID-19, but some people are more likely to end up in the hospital, or even the intensive care unit (ICU), while ill with this new virus.

If you have a family member who is considered high risk, know that he or she is likely taking extra precautions to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. To still include your high-risk family members in the gathering, use digital tools that can help you gather virtually.

In addition, if someone in your household is high risk, avoid hosting a family gathering at your home, as this could put him or her at greater risk.

Family members at highest risk include those who are over the age of 65, are immunocompromised or have one or more of the following underlying health conditions:

  • Lung disease
  • Moderate-to-severe asthma
  • Advanced heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Liver disease

Limit the number of households coming together

Gathering in groups is a risk in and of itself, but you can reduce that risk by making sure that both the number of family members you invite and the location of your gathering make maintaining social distancing and limiting contact with frequently touched surfaces as easy as possible.

In fact, you may want to invite just one other family household to your gathering.

Every household within your extended family has a different risk of exposure to coronavirus. For instance, if someone in your family works in a place where he or she frequently interacts with people who are sick, like a hospital, or where social distancing is challenging, like a grocery store, his or her risk of exposure to COVID-19 is likely higher. If a family member has just traveled or dines at restaurants regularly, his or her risk of exposure may be higher as well.

Keep your family members outdoors as much as possible

An important part of gathering in a small group during this pandemic is doing so outdoors — in your backyard, for example.

Before your family arrives, have plenty of tables and chairs set up outside. You can mingle in socially distant circles, but you'll want to have a separate table for each family household if you plan to eat during the gathering.

During your backyard gathering, make sure you have everything your family members may need readily available outside, including:

  • Plastic dinnerware
  • Napkins and paper towels
  • Alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Separate coolers with ice to keep food and drinks cold

If kids will be present, make sure there are plenty of outdoor activities so that they're not tempted to sneak inside to play video games. While you want to avoid letting kids play contact sports, playing in the pool is fine — as long as social distancing is still happening.

Social distancing still matters around family, as well as when you're outdoors

Even though you’re outside and even though you’re around family, you still need to maintain social distancing.

While having a conversation, remember that six feet is probably further than you think — about two arm's lengths. You may even want to use tables or other physical barriers as a reminder to keep your distance from family members that aren't a part of your household.

In addition, don't feel like wearing your cloth mask is silly since you're outdoors and social distancing. While it may not protect you from catching COVID-19, it may protect you from spreading it if you're infected and don't yet know it. Keep in mind, though, that a mask doesn't mean it's okay to break social distancing — the two are meant to work in tandem.

Avoid sharing food

While your past family gatherings were probably always centered around sharing some delicious home-cooked meal, gatherings during a pandemic shouldn't be.

In fact, it's best for each family household to bring its own food and drinks.

One relatively safe way to serve your family food is to serve freshly cooked meat directly off of your grill or barbecue pit. However, it's best to have only one person from each family fill a platter of meat for his or her entire table. Each household should still bring its own sides and drinks.

As an alternative, consider buying prepackaged meals and setting separate, unopened containers out at each household's socially distant table. And make sure to remind kids that, if they want a snack, they should grab from the bag of chips at their own household's table.

Have a direct route to the restroom

While you'll want your family members to be outdoors as much as possible, nature will likely call.

To limit the risk of your guests touching potentially contaminated surfaces inside your home, as well as potentially contaminating surfaces themselves, make sure your guests know exactly how to get to your restroom.

In addition, you may want to have paper towels in the bathroom so you and your guests aren't sharing a hand towel.

Keep your family gathering short

Back in the day, it was totally safe for your family gatherings to last as long as you wanted them to. During a pandemic, the longer you gather, the riskier the gathering becomes.

There's no hard and fast rule as to how long your gathering should be — any amount of time increases your risk — but avoid letting the gathering drag on for several hours.

Catch up, laugh and enjoy one another's company — and then don't be afraid to kindly let your family know that it's time to say your goodbyes.


Concerned you may have COVID-19?

  • If you're experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, you can speak to a Virtual Urgent Care provider 24/7. The provider will help you determine if testing is needed and advise you on where you should go.

  • If you are a Houston Methodist patient, you can call your doctor for guidance and help determining whether or not you should be tested for COVID-19