By now, over 30% of eligible Canadians are fully vaccinated, and life is beginning to return to some semblance of normalcy for many. Exciting! But also very confusing. After over a year of wearing face masks and social distancing, not to mention the flip-flopping of health guidelines (and in Ontario, the on-and-off opening and closing of businesses), it can be difficult to know just what is and what isn’t safe to do as we head back into the outside world, and try to gauge whether or not we can see our BFFs indoors, especially with the troubling rise in cases of the Delta variant.
On June 25, the Canadian government and the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) made the first steps towards clarifying just what exactly a safe post-vax life looks like, releasing a set of guidelines for those who are fully vaccinated. (FYI, fully vaccinated means two weeks after you received your final vaccine.) Broken down by situation and personal vaccination status, the guidelines generally outline in what situations people should be wearing masks and social distancing (Indoors with people from multiple households: YES; Outside with a close group of fully-vaccinated friends at the park: NO), and the circumstances under which fully vaccinated people can safely go mask-less (Outdoors with a small group of fully vaccinated friends: YES; At a massive concert: NO). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released similar guidelines for the U.S. in March, and experts in Canada have been asking for a similar direction for months; but while the recent release from PHAC is later than hoped, according to experts, it’s better late than never.
“They make a lot of sense,” says Dr. Ashleigh Tuite, a Toronto-based infectious disease epidemiologist, of the new guidelines. “They acknowledge the fact that vaccines are highly effective — so once a person is fully vaccinated they can start making different decisions — but also acknowledge the fact that not everyone you encounter is going to be fully vaccinated, so you need to take that into consideration.”
Specifically, Tuite notes, the guidelines are more focused on personal and private gatherings than advising people about what to do when they’re out, say shopping for groceries or getting their hair done, places where masks remain mandatory. This is a distinction that’s important from a community-minded perspective, because it acknowledges that not everyone has access to their second dose, or maybe they have chosen not to get vaccinated, and centres the personal decision-making on mask-wearing firmly in the private sphere.
“The guidelines do capture the fact that there's a bit of a grey area; and there has always been the sense of personal decision-making or personal risk-taking that an individual has to make for themselves. [The PHAC] can provide that guidance, but ultimately you have to decide what you’re most comfortable with.” And also recognize that the goal posts keep changing. Since the guidelines were released, the Delta variant has surged in Canada, with experts saying the variant is 50% more transmissible than the original strain. According to PHAC, if not under control, the new Delta variant could lead to a higher than expected resurgence in case numbers in the fall.
And don’t be surprised if your comfort zone varies by situation. So, whether you’re planning on pulling out some Monopoly (or We’re Not Really Strangers if you’re feeling spicy) with friends, planning to rock out at that very delayed concert you paid too much for, or wondering what the protocol is for visiting a friend with an unvaccinated child, we break down PHAC’s recommendations, with expert tips for every situation you may find yourself in this summer.
The situation: games night with my four BFFs friends at my friend’s house
We know, you want to see your friends indoors without the threat of errant torrential downpours looming over your outdoor park or patio hang. And now you can — within reason. According to the guidelines, small groups of fully vaccinated people are now able to gather indoors mask-less and without social distancing rules for a dinner, to watch a movie, or to just straight up hug.
While the PHAC doesn’t outline what exactly a small group is, Tuite classifies this as five to 10 people, depending on your province’s individual restrictions for indoor gathering. She adds that, if everyone is vaccinated and comfortable removing masks, this is a low-risk situation.
People who have yet to be vaccinated or are only partially vaccinated, it’s important to consider the reality that vaccinated people can still contract and carry COVID-19, and that they can also unknowingly spread the virus. If you’re partially vaccinated and surrounded by fully vaccinated people, the likelihood of this happening is low but not impossible, says Tuite.
“There are examples of clusters of infection where the initial case was somebody who is vaccinated and they did infect other people,” Tuite says. The key is to be aware of the fact that while vaccines are effective, they aren’t the only protection available. With anything indoors, Tuite recommends a layered approach to safety. “If you're not vaccinated or only partially vaccinated and you're going to be hanging out with other people who are fully vaccinated and are comfortable taking off your mask, talk about opening the windows and having those other protections in place.”
The situation: Pool party with my roommate, work bestie, and several of her friends
If you are going to get together with a group of people of varying vaccination statuses and from different households, it’s best to do so outside. Regardless of the vaccination status of your peers, if you’re fully vaccinated you can splash around in a pool sans mask and sans social distancing. For those who aren’t vaccinated or only partially so, Tuite advises maintaining physical distance between yourself and others, knowing that the biggest risk will only come if you have really close contact (in which case, the PHAC suggests wearing a mask).
“In general, it's so much easier to take things outdoors, particularly if you have a mixed group of people, because the risk is lower,” she says. “You can be a little bit more relaxed outdoors than indoors, because indoors there's always the question of whether or not you have good ventilation, or if it’s stuffy.” Just be aware of who’s around you and maintain six-feet distance if possible. (But that’s what pool floaties are for, right?).
The situation: a Harry Styles concert
Okay, this one is kind of tricky. Per the PHAC guidelines, if attending an indoor or outdoor event where there’ll be a large crowd of people closely gathered, those who aren’t fully vaccinated should continue wearing a mask and social distance, and those who are fully vaccinated should consider wearing a mask; meaning that it’s kind of up to you.
But experts have a more definitive answer: “Definitely mask up,” advises Sabina Vohra-Miller, the Toronto-based founder of Unambiguous Science, an online platform that dispels anti-science myths via data. “In this situation, there's just so much unknown; especially when you're in a crowded area and it's poorly ventilated.”
In instances like this, Tuite adds, if you’re fully vaccinated, wearing a mask becomes more of a decision for the greater social good. “We're mostly worried about ourselves, but we need to be thinking about the broader community and what that means for other people. The idea of in public continuing to wear masks despite the fact that you’re vaccinated, some people find that silly, because they’re vaccinated and protected. But the flip side of that is that not everybody is vaccinated and that the virus is still circulating.”
Considering the alternatives would be only allowing people with vaccine passports to attend concerts (which becomes an equity issue, not to mention we’re not even sure what vaccine passports will look like), going to concerts that are socially distanced (okay, but not super fun), or not going to concerts at all and missing out on the opportunity of seeing Styles croon in a matching suit (nope!), masking up isn’t asking so much.
The situation: spikeball at the park
Regardless of how you feel about spikeball as a game, for those who prefer to stay outdoors with their small group of fully vaccinated friends, it’s a good choice. Hanging outdoors is one of the lowest-risk situations when it comes to COVID-19. Being outside means better ventilation, which lessens the chance of accumulated COVID-19 particles in the air and thus lessens the risk of spread.
The situation: my cousin’s super-delayed wedding
Chances are that you’ve seen at least one or two nuptials get delayed again, and again… and probably one more time. Love conquers all, except when it comes to wedding timelines affected by a global pandemic. With provinces opening up across the country, so too are wedding venues and guest lists, meaning summer 2021 is going to officially be the summer of COVID-postponed-love. If you’re planning on spending time indoors with a group of people from multiple households and of varying vaccine statuses (like say, being seated at a reception table with your cousin’s former university roommate, her middle school boyfriend, and that one creepy uncle), it’s recommended that unvaccinated and partially vaccinated people maintain social distancing and continue wearing masks, while fully vaccinated people follow any venue COVID-safety guidelines, and wear a mask if they’re immunocompromised.
The issue, Vohra-Miller says, comes with fully vaccinated adults who may live in a home with unvaccinated people — say children under 12 — or immunocompromised people, like elderly parents. “I would be asking [people to wear a mask] indoors in this situation because logically, I don't know what the vaccination status of everyone else is. And I know that there is a possibility of me actually getting COVID even though I'm fully vaccinated [and] possibly passing that on to my child.”
In this case, as with any situation where you’ll be around others, it’s best to check-in with their vaccination status and what they’re comfortable with, as well as vocalize your own comfort level when it comes to people wearing or not wearing a mask.
The situation: visiting my friend who has an unvaccinated child under 12
Speaking of children under 12, while the guidelines do cover a general variety of scenarios, Vohra-Miller points out that they do miss one crucial bucket of people: Those who have children under the age of 12, who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. “The way the guidelines are written, basically any family who has unvaccinated kids don't really have any changes to being as they are right now.” She notes that there needs to be something in place so unvaccinated children can safely hug their vaccinated grandparents (CDC guidelines have okayed this for a while).
When it comes to visiting with friends who may have unvaccinated children, both indoors or outside, Vohra-Miller says it’s important to be respectful of people’s comfort level and boundaries — especially the kids themselves. They may face a low risk of being impacted by COVID, but they could still become infected. Tuite advises meeting up with friends outside if possible and maintaining distance.