Dr. Matyas: “Every weekend we’re having these get-togethers, and seven to 10 days later we start getting the cases.”

With Father’s Day and summer BBQs coming up, is there a safe way to socialize?

San Francisco Chronicle, by Erin Allday, June 19, 2020
Friends and family socially distance as they party for Addie McLaughlin’s sixth birthday Saturday at Golden Gate Park.
Friends and family socially distance as they party for Addie McLaughlin’s sixth birthday Saturday at Golden Gate Park. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

As the Bay Area emerges from a season of dreary pandemic isolation into an unfairly beautiful June and all the potential of a sun-drenched and hard-earned summer, the temptation is becoming unbearable. People want to go outside, and they want to see each other again.

Father’s Day barbecues, Fourth of July picnics, family reunions in Tahoe, and Stinson Beach weekends with friends are surely starting to make it onto social calendars. But here’s the hard truth: The coronavirus doesn’t care if people are tired of sheltering in place.

Recent surges in cases across the Bay Area already have been tied to social gatherings, first Mother’s Day and then Memorial Day. A few clusters are associated with graduation parties, and public health officials expect to see more in the coming weeks.

“The pace of family gatherings has not slowed down. I think it started on Mother’s Day and it hasn’t stopped,” Bela Matyas, the Solano County health officer, said in a recent interview. “Every weekend we’re having these get-togethers, and seven to 10 days later we start getting the cases.”

California reported a one-day record of new cases this week — more than 4,000 on Wednesday — and it’s impossible to blame that surge on any one factor. The state has dramatically increased testing over the past month and counties have been steadily easing shelter-in-place restrictions, so more people are returning to work and interacting with others.

Plus, thousands of people have joined Black Lives Matter protests that will almost certainly result in some new cases, public health experts have said.

But throughout this pandemic, it’s become clear that the riskiest situations involve close, lengthy contact with others. That’s why clusters often form around people in a shared household. Parties with close friends and family are similarly perilous.

Small social gatherings are allowed, if not necessarily encouraged, as state and local shelter-in-place directives begin to ease up. San Francisco formally permitted them as of Saturday, but only outdoors and in groups of up to 12 people — six if there’s a shared meal.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered guidance last week on how people should come together as the coronavirus continues to circulate. Alameda County earlier this month endorsed “social bubbles” — groups of up to 12 people who may meet outside for friendly hangouts.

Though these gatherings will always come with some risk, public health experts say there are ways to make them safer, and by now most people should be familiar with the advice: Wear face coverings, meet outside instead of inside, keep 6 feet apart, don’t shake hands or hug or kiss, don’t share food or utensils or anything else.

Friends and family socially distance as they gather to celebrate Addie McLaughlin's sixth birthday.
Friends and family socially distance as they gather to celebrate Addie McLaughlin’s sixth birthday. Photo: Jessica Christian / The Chronicle

Charles McLaughlin’s family was abiding by those principles at Golden Gate Park last Saturday, when they gathered with two other families to celebrate his daughter’s sixth birthday. The families spread picnic blankets more than 6 feet apart and brought their own food. Everyone had face coverings.

Even the children were doing their best to maintain social distancing, riding bikes across the grass and chasing each other around a field beside the Conservatory of Flowers.

“We’ve been locked up for a while. It feels good to be outside,” McLaughlin said as Addie, the birthday girl in a pink tutu, took off on her bike. As recently as last month, McLaughlin and his wife had thought that Addie would have to celebrate with just her immediate family, with some friends invited to drive by with their well wishes.

The McLaughlins and another family at the party share a nanny for their four children, but they only started socializing again a couple of weeks ago. It was tough on the children to be separated, said Ryan Keerns, whose two sons are friends with McLaughlin’s daughters.

“The older kids have known each other since they were 6 months old. They have the same nanny, they go to school together,” Keerns said. “To just go cold turkey with not seeing each other is hard.”

But Keerns said they were all cognizant of the hazards of spending time together.

“We’ve stayed in our apartment since the beginning of all this,” he said.

In fact, as infectious disease experts learn more about the new coronavirus, it’s become increasingly obvious that close, extended contact is the most common avenue of transmission — making social gatherings especially risky as people resume some kind of normal life after sheltering in place, public health officials say.

Santa Cruz County reported several clusters of cases tied to Mother’s Day celebrations. Three Bay Area health officers said they saw a notable uptick in local cases after Memorial Day, and some were connected directly to social events that occurred over the holiday.

Earlier, the CDC reported clusters that were associated with funerals and birthday parties.

Those gatherings are sure to happen more often in the coming weeks with summer celebrations on the horizon, public health experts acknowledge. That’s especially true after people have been sheltering in place for three months, and as more of the economy opens up and people begin to venture outside their homes anyway.

“People are just darned tired of being cooped up, locked up in their homes, not being able to go out and see other people,” said Warner Greene, an infectious disease expert with the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco. “We are basically social beings.”

Greene and his wife are starting to socialize more, he said. A couple of weeks ago, they organized a weekend retreat with their adult children and the grandchildren. They’re thinking of inviting a pair of friends over for dinner.

He noted that large gatherings are still profoundly unwise. He said he cringed at images of people crowding beaches over Memorial Day and he’s worried about Fourth of July festivities.