Mary Grace Sponn loves picnics. For years, Sponn, a Stonington, Connecticut shop owner, has kept everything she needed for outdoor eating – folding chairs and a table, coolers, baskets, utensils and even salt and pepper shakers – at home, ready to be used at parks and open areas. 

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit, bringing with it social distancing and other restrictions. Her picnic gear soon turned into a tool kit for maintaining social connections and safety. 

At her twice-weekly outdoor dinner parties, Sponn takes BYO to a new level as husband Bill's health puts him at high risk. Along with her tactical outdoor dining kit, she puts food she's sharing with the group into separate containers.

"Once somebody touches something, I’m done," Sponn said. "Not everyone is as cautious as I am." 

As the first day of summer arrives Saturday amid a global pandemic, it raises the question of what the season – typically packed with social gatherings, barbecues and pool parties – will look like. And how can hosts and guests stay safe?

Kelly Cornett, a scientist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hopes Americans know that the virus that has claimed more than 100,000 people in the U.S. is still here. 

"This unprecedented pandemic has not ended," she says. "So, we live with that. And there’s still no such thing as a zero risk activity right now."

But that doesn't mean that celebrations have to fade into the darkness like a firework, says Patrice A. Harris, immediate past president of the American Medical Association.

"There’s no such thing as safe, but we certainly want to be out, and we certainly want to get together with friends and family members," Harris says. "So what you can do is think about how to make that safer."

Before you go out, evaluate your risk

Whether it's safe to socialize at all depends on the level of COVID-19's spread in the community and the amount of risk it poses to those who socialize and the people they are around.

Before you go out, review updates from the local health department and understand what local orders are in place (Does the locality require masks in public? Is the pool even open yet?). 

States have also set limits for the number of people with which it is safe to socialize outside the household. The people at highest risk from COVID-19 are over the age of 65 and have underlying medical conditions, including diabetes, hypertension and other chronic conditions.  

Caitlin Rivers, an epidemiologist with Johns Hopkins University's Center for Health Security, agrees the "burden of disease" and health risks it presents are key considerations. Asked whether Sponn's level of precaution is needed, Rivers said it depends on how much risk the virus presents to the partygoer and the people he or she lives or spends time with.  

"If you are older and have underlying health conditions, maybe just go all the way," Rivers told USA TODAY's editorial board Tuesday. "But if you don't have very many risk factors for severe illness, and you don't have someone in your household or someone that you're in contact with that has those underlying vulnerabilities, you might take a few more liberties."

 

Consider mental health, too

Sponn knew those answers well. Bill Sponn, 60, had a "massive aneurysm" from stress when he returned to his Manhattan graphic design office after 9/11. Then, seven years ago, while the couple was vacationing in St. Martin in the Caribbean, an infection around his lungs became so serious he had to be medically transported back to the U.S. 

But there's a cost to not socializing, too, as the psychologist Ben Miller of the nonprofit Well Being Trust reports there's an "epidemic within the coronavirus pandemic" of festering mental health and addiction problems. In May, Well Being Trust predicted pandemic-related deaths from addiction and suicide could hit 150,000. 

Miller practices what he preaches. Early on in the pandemic, he helped organize a block party with 6-foot circles marked off in the road with chalk so socializers could keep their distance easily. 

"It's almost cruel that now, during some of the most stressful times any of us have experienced, we have been asked to distance ourselves," Miller said. "And it makes sense, which means we have to be creative in how we connect.”

Sponn agrees: "Not only do we have to stay safe physically, but we have to stay safe mentally and can't be holed up in our homes."

Distance, masks and others ways you can mitigate risks of COVID-19

When possible, opt for outdoor activities over indoor ones, advises Harris, who also recommends keeping a distance of 6 feet from those outside of your immediately family and always wearing a mask.

Regarding summer, "that might mean going camping with family, or to hang out with a small group in a friend’s backyard verses a crowded indoor event," Cornett says.

Basics of safe socializing this summer 

Cornett, Harris and health officials recommend: 

Check to see whether the activity you're planning to do is open before you leave the house. Local authorities can decide to open or close parks, natural bodies of water, beaches and swimming areas with little advance notice as the COVID-19 situation in the area changes.   Always try to keep 6 feet between you and people outside your household, whether inside or outside.  Wear a face mask whenever possible.  Bring hand sanitizer and wipes for public restrooms. Shorter gatherings are less risky for spreading the virus than longer ones.  Keep the guest list small.  Do not share utensils, plates or cups at barbecues or gatherings with food.  Do not greet people with hugs, handshakes or elbow bumps.   Always stay home if you are feeling sick or have been exposed to COVID-19.