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'Can I Visit Family?' Harvard Disease-Exposure Scientist Answers This Summer's Big Questions

Liz Lerner
Scientist Joseph Allen explains safe ways to visit friends and family this summer.

Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, spent an hour this week answering reporters’ questions about how to stay coronavirus-safe while you enjoy the summer with family and friends. WCAI has boiled it down to a few essentials to answer questions that may be on your mind.

Q: Can I visit family? What if they live out of state?

Allen: This starts getting to individual risk and what you find acceptable or not. I mean, the goal here is to minimize the number of social contacts people have. ... And if you know they have been social-distanced and self-quarantined for two weeks, and you have, too, and you're not having any other exposure, then I think people could make a reasonable decision, based on their own personal risk profile, that this would be a low enough risk to spend time with others.

Where it gets tricky or problematic is if everybody starts doing that, and assuming that, and your social network starts widening and widening. Well, then it quickly gets back to the potential for larger spread or breakdown in that transmission. But in terms of personal risk, [it] would be relatively low, yeah.

Q: Can I go to a barbecue?

Allen: If you're with other people, maintain the distance and definitely wear your mask. Be vigilant about handwashing.

You know, get outside, absolutely. Get outside, meet with friends outside, at a distance. That's great. Go for a walk. But separate out when you're talking. Meet in somebody's backyard, but separate out, you know?

It’s one of these things that — it's different at first, and feels uncomfortable. But I think about one of the early conversations I had, you know, with one of my neighbors in March.

And the first time we had a conversation on the street, but we kept eight feet away from each other, it felt funny. And now it feels totally normal, and it's actually nice to see them and have that conversation.

So it may feel funny or awkward at first, you know, like a physical-distanced barbecue. But there's nothing like seeing friends, face to face, and hopefully sharing a couple of laughs in this really stressful time.

Q: Can I go to a large wedding?

Allen: I feel confident that in any environment, controls can be put in place to minimize risk sufficiently. But it'll look a lot different from a typical wedding, right? So yeah, that means people wear a mask, people being spread out. You say “large wedding,” and that's a relative term.

If you have 300 people crammed into a dance hall, that's going to be very different from 50 close friends spread out in an outdoor location, right?

So I think there are ways you can do it. But ... I'm hesitant to give kind of a generalized guidance. And again, it's all going to depend on the context of what's happening with disease and our ability to control it. But definitely we should be mindful and be wary of large gatherings.

Q: Should I wear a mask in a park?

Allen: Just like you don't leave the home without your phone and wallet these days, you shouldn’t leave the home without a mask and some hand sanitizer. Universal mask-wearing should happen. It’s supported by the scientific evidence. I wrote an article in The Washington Post, maybe four, maybe six weeks ago outlining the evidence, the fourfold evidence on why they provide a benefit.

So we need to be doing this, certainly when we head into indoor spaces or we can encounter people. If you're at a park, though, and separated from others, it's okay to pull your mask down.

If you're near other people or if you're passing people on the sidewalk, or certainly if you're in a store, you should be wearing a mask.

Allen’s closing thoughts:

How people should view these reopening and the loosening of restrictions around parks, beaches, offices, barber shops — you name it — places of worship, is that we should definitely view this as a privilege, and one that can be and actually will have to be revoked swiftly if crowds do not act appropriately. So it's incumbent upon us to do our part in this.