Ask Detour: The time has come to mingle indoors. H...

Ask Detour: The time has come to mingle indoors. How do you even do that?

With no firm guidance, it’s up to each of us to decide what’s safe. Here’s some help.

Watercolor of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch via publicdomainpictures.com

Despite the improving weather, whether and how to gather indoors is something we’re all going to be thinking about more and more as Michigan winds down masking and capacity limits. Going forward, we’ll all be deciding our own tolerance for risk.

Vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks where they’re not expressly required, and as of July 1, there will be no more mask mandate in Michigan, something some people have been advocating for months. Other public health officials near and far think it’s too soon to ditch masks, and some businesses are continuing to require them. In Detroit, only 26% of residents ages 12 and up are fully vaccinated.

The state health department announced a new epidemic order this week that goes into effect Tuesday, June 1, relaxing capacity limits indoors and outdoors and dropping the six-person party size limit for restaurants. Read the details here

Several Detour readers reached out to us with questions about what to do when faced with situations in which people gathering indoors may not be vaccinated. Reader Annette’s question speaks to the ever-changing uncertainty many of us feel: 

“So much of the information I see about when and where masks are no longer needed miss the one situation that so many people will be (or already are) confronting — gathering indoors with a mix of mostly vaccinated and some not as occurs at family gatherings. It has caused tension and unpleasantness already and will be a frequent scenario on the fall/winter holidays. Do we need to assess each case? Is the unvaccinated person in a high risk profession like health care? or are they working from home and generally careful? Can there even be an overall guideline?”

Spoiler: there’s no magic formula that can ensure total safety or quell all anxiety — or guarantee no conflict with loved ones — but there are some guides out there that will help you think about risk in your own situation and navigate the tough conversations. 

With the changing regulations and unknowns around vaccine statuses, how can I determine if a gathering is safe?

You should feel comfortable setting your own boundaries for what you feel is personally safe and communicating them with a host, who should be able to answer (respectful) questions about common issues like how many people are attending and whether masking will be required.

If you need some perspective or help setting those boundaries, researchers from MIT created this detailed online tool to help you determine the risk of COVID transmission in an indoor setting, based on things like room size, activity, masking, age group and which strain is present. In advanced mode, it can provide guidance for limiting your own personal risk, factoring in how risk-tolerant you are, the rate of immunity among the participants, how many people and how long you’re together.

If I’m fully vaccinated, can I hang out with unvaccinated people?

Centers for Disease Control guidance suggests you can gather indoors with an unvaccinated person and go maskless if no one in the household is at high risk, but you should limit indoor interactions with unvaccinated people to just one household at a time — so solo visits, not larger hangs. 

If you’re vaccinated, you’re potentially less likely to transmit an infection, but scientists are still investigating, according to the CDC. According to John Hopkins pharmacology and molecular science expert Namandje Bumpus, Ph.D., certain scenarios are safer than others. 

“Even among a few people, the virus can spread, and we strongly recommend against people from multiple households getting together without precautions if some are unvaccinated,” she said.

If you’re vaccinated and going indoors with people who might not be vaccinated, or you have no way of knowing — like on public transit, at a store or during an event — John Hopkins experts recommend continuing social distancing and keeping your mask on. Yes, even if state law doesn’t require it. 

“People who have been fully vaccinated can feel safer when they are out among other people,” Bumpus said, “but we need to stay diligent about protecting those who haven’t yet received their vaccines.”

Should I ask about the vaccine status of people I want to hang out with?

If you are planning a get-together where people will be indoors, you may want to ascertain everyone’s vaccination status and risk factors and plan accordingly. Those with high risk of severe disease should avoid mingling with unvaccinated people in enclosed spaces for extended periods of time.

“Even if you have been fully vaccinated, when you are deciding about spending time in close proximity with older people and those with health problems, ask questions about vaccination and risk, and invite honest answers,” Bumpus said. “Don’t assume that people are safe or that they feel comfortable interacting with others yet.”

Some politicians have claimed that the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act precludes people from asking about your vaccination status, but that’s not true. Family and friends are not considered “covered entities” under HIPAA. In fact, very few entities are prohibited under federal law from asking about others’ vaccination statuses, including airlines, businesses, employers and schools. 

How can I ask about vaccine status diplomatically and politely?

We’re finding some clarity in the Washington Post’s comprehensive etiquette guide, geared at the latest stage of the pandemic. A standout piece of advice: make sure you’re asking whether someone is vaccinated because it personally affects you, not because you’re simply curious, and frame your question around that. There’s no real substitute for open and honest communication.

Here’s one script from parenting columnist Meghan Leahy, for parents who are trying to determine if a playdate partner’s household is vaccinated: “Hey, Reginald is so excited to hang out, and we are being extra-cautious because my immunocompromised mother lives with us. So are y’all vaccinated yet? It’s fine if you aren’t. We just may need to move the play date outside.”

You don’t have to invite unvaccinated people into your home, but you can suggest other ways to connect, like continuing the FaceTime or Zoom hangs. One therapist said that you should try to find common ground and “start by acknowledging that it is a difficult time and everyone wants to stay healthy and safe.”

What do I do if I have kids who are unvaccinated or I want to hang out with people with kids?

While Pfizer has announced intentions to roll out its vaccine to kids as young as 2 by September, as of now, anyone under 12 is not eligible for a vaccine. So what to do? “Kids still need to be masked when socializing indoors in most circumstances,” said pediatrician Elizabeth Hill, M.D. When it comes to indoor activities, pre-vaccine era guidelines continue to apply. Think about reducing risk with masks, pods and reducing time spent indoors with other unvaccinated kids as much as possible. Unvaccinated kids should also wear masks in the presence of unvaccinated adults.

Outdoors, it’s a different story. While outdoor activities may not be completely risk-free, the benefits are likely to outweigh the risks for kids without existing health issues, according to Mac McCullough, a health economist at Arizona State University. 

Have a question we didn’t answer? Email nina@detourdetroiter.com.

Nina Misuraca Ignaczak is a contributing editor for Detour Detroit. She is the founder and executive editor of Planet Detroit, a digital media startup that tells Detroit’s environmental stories while building a community of engaged readers who are informed and empowered to act personally and publicly. She is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes, edits and produces stories about the environment, place and identity. Her recent work has been published by Detour Detroit, Belt Magazine, HuffPost, Detroit Free Press, WDET, Crains Detroit Business, Business Insider, Curbed Detroit and Model D. Prior to her career in journalism, she worked in urban planning in the local government and nonprofit sectors. She has a Master of Science in Natural Resource Ecology and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Twitter: @ninaignaczak