Is it safe to gather for Labor Day? Experts weigh in amid COVID-19 surge

As Americans head into Labor Day weekend, experts are emphasizing the importance of taking safety precautions against COVID-19, especially in areas that are seeing an increase in cases or are dealing with low vaccination rates.

Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta, said that this emphasis of caution was driven by the current surge of coronavirus cases and an effort to keep kids learning in-person.

"It's really unfortunate. It's a bad combination of the delta variant, not having enough people vaccinated, and having kids back in schools. It really is suddenly important to be careful like we were talking about a year ago as opposed to a couple months ago," Sexton said. "If people are feeling bad about the fact that there's another holiday where we have to take these kinds of precautions … that should definitely be an impetus to go get a vaccine if you're not vaccinated yet."

What precautions should I take during Labor Day celebrations?

Sexton noted that unlike previous surges of the pandemic, the United States is dealing with variable amounts of coronavirus transmission — in places with low transmission rates and high vaccination rates, people can be a little laxer, but in areas dealing with high amounts of coronavirus and grappling with medical systems on the verge of being overwhelmed, more caution is necessary.

"I think as a general rule, avoiding large gatherings right now, when we've got health care systems that are really at capacity is the smart thing to do," said Sexton.

If you do decide to have a gathering, there are a few easy things you can do to avoid it turning into a "super spreader event," according to Dr. Keri Althoff, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The first thing to do is think about vaccination status — if everyone invited is vaccinated, it's likely to be a safer event. Unvaccinated people should wear masks and keep their distance when indoors.

"If you are unvaccinated and you're heading into this Labor Day weekend, you should really think through what your plans are and who you're going to be in contact with," Althoff said.

 Related:A doctor and an etiquette expert weigh in on how social norms — from handshakes to blowing out birthday candles — have been affected by the pandemic.

The next helpful precaution is just to move your event outdoors, where the coronavirus is less likely to spread.

"Outdoors is significantly better than indoors. I definitely would not eat indoors unmasked with a lot of people outside your household, particularly if you've got people who are vulnerable, (like) unvaccinated children or immunocompromised adults," Sexton said.

Althoff said that it can be helpful to try to limit the guest list: Don't invite tons of people, and if you do invite people from outside your household, try to keep the invitations to people who live locally so that they don't have to travel long distances. As always, if you aren't feeling well or are showing symptoms of COVID-19, stay home.

However, if you can take these safety precautions, Althoff said it's possible to enjoy the long weekend.

"I think if people want to relax and have a great Labor Day weekend, we should all do that for own mental health and endurance in this marathon," she said. "… We know how to enjoy activities and see people and recharge and do it in a way that results in us being able to get back to … the working environment that awaits us after the holiday and get our kids back into class and then keep them there. Being safe over Labor Day weekend is not just for this weekend, but really for all the weeks afterwards."

What about kids during Labor Day celebrations?

Since children under the age of 12 can't currently be vaccinated against COVID-19, it's important to take similar precautions: Keep them outside as much as possible, encourage them to keep their distance, and ask them to wear masks while indoors.

Sexton said that while children are "less likely to have severe infection than adults," there has been a concerning "uptick in severe infections in pediatric hospitals." The other reason parents should make sure children are acting safely is to keep schools open and functioning as the school year gets underway.

 Related:"This is a tough time to be a pediatrician and mom," Dr. Mona Amin shared.

"No parent wants to see their child isolated (or) quarantined if they become ill or if they become exposed to someone who became infected over Labor Day weekend," Althoff said. "Everything has to be thought about in terms of what we can do to protect (children) and to keep them in school, but also to protect their school communities."

Sexton said that because vaccination rates have been low in parts of the country and not all teachers or school staff have been vaccinated, there also remains some concern that kids could spread the virus to other, more at-risk individuals.

"Kids may go home to vulnerable parents or grandparents, or be in school with other students who may be more vulnerable, a teacher who may be vulnerable," Sexton said. "The more we can cut down on spread in the (student) population, the better for everybody."

 Related:Kids are returning to school this month, and children under the age of 12 still can't be vaccinated. An expert panel answered TODAY's biggest questions.

What about food and surfaces?

While the early precautions of the pandemic focused on cleaning surfaces and had some shoppers wiping down their groceries, Althoff and Sexton said that it's become clear that the coronavirus is primarily a respiratory illness. However, it's still important to keep surfaces sanitary.

"General cleanliness … is always a good idea, irrespective of COVID," said Sexton, noting an increase in RSV illnesses and other sicknesses. "And wash your hands."

Althoff pointed out that it's also important to keep an eye on food, especially during outdoor celebrations.

"Make sure your barbecue foods are served at proper temperatures and that all the steps are taken to ensure that those foods are prepared in the most clean and risk-reduced scenarios possible," Althoff said. "All of that is so very important to enjoy a family barbecue. Everyone's thinking, 'Oh, I don't want COVID at my barbecue,' but you also don't want to start a foodborne illness outbreak."


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