A slew of new ads show sloppy kisses. Air travel is ticking back up. And impending vaccination can seem like a ticket back to normalcy for 20-somethings in the United States, many of whom feel desperate to get back to their 2019 social lives. Cramped parties. Strobe-lit dance floors. The ability to spontaneously text a friend: Want to grab a drink?
Younger adults have played a disproportionate role in spreading the coronavirus. A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that from June to August 2020, Covid infections among 20- to 29-year-olds surged, accounting for more than 20 percent of the country’s total cases. Shortly after, data showed that those cases then led to an increase in infections among middle-aged and older people, potentially contributing to a national surge in cases.
Now, as older adults have been prioritized for vaccination and about two-thirds of those over 65 have received at least one dose, their risk of getting severely ill after catching the virus from an infected young person has decreased significantly.
But that doesn’t mean it’s completely safe to party like it’s 2019.
How you calculate your risk of passing the virus onto more vulnerable people will hinge on your individual circumstances: whether you live with parents or people in their 20s, whether there are people at risk for severe outcomes of Covid in your social circle. “There’s not a simple red light, green light,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University.
Here are some answers to common questions about what, in general, younger adults who are low risk can do when they’re fully vaccinated.
Can we just go back to normal?
A return to a kind of normal is coming, experts stressed, but there are still many unknowns about how the next few months will play out. While rising vaccination rates and falling cases are encouraging, said Dr. Schaffner, there are three situations that could hamper or negate that progress: if people refuse vaccination, if community transmission rates stay high and if virus variants render vaccines less effective.
“If the older and younger adults get vaccines, and the variants are not too variant, then we could have lots of pool parties,” he said. “Bars could open up.”
“The movement back to normal life should be a slow step-by-step,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, who researches large-scale health events. She recommended that people pick out one riskier activity they’ve been craving during the pandemic — seeing friends, going out to eat — and do that to celebrate their vaccination. “Then it should be a gradual move forward, rather than this huge explosion of, ‘I’m free!’,” she said.
But much of that is dependent on how much virus is circulating in your community.
“Once you get to a combination of hardly any cases in the community and a high proportion of people vaccinated — then, everything changes,” said Dr. Paul E. Sax, an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “That’s really what we’re looking forward to. Then you say, ‘Sure, I’ll take the chance of going to a restaurant. My chance of going to a restaurant and getting sick from Covid is no higher than the risk of getting sick from a regular cold.’ That’s a risk people should be very willing to take.”
“People have to keep their eyes on the Covid landscape the way they do the weather,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco. He recommended that people monitor vaccination rates in their community and cases per 100,000. Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University, recommended the Covid ActNow site to check case numbers per county; The New York Times also tracks risk level by county.
If your area has fewer than 10 cases per 100,000, it’s safer to go to a party or hang out indoors in a larger group of all vaccinated people. A far less safe scenario would be to participate in the kinds of spring break-related parties that are drawing attention in Florida, which reported 22 cases per 100,000 in the past seven days and is thought to have a large concentration of B.1.1.7, the more contagious and possibly more lethal virus variant first identified in Britain.
Can we make out with strangers?
Experts interviewed for this piece said that kissing and other intimate contact with someone you don’t know once you’ve been vaccinated is likely to be safe as long as you can confirm that they are also vaccinated.
Even without that confirmation, making out with a stranger is likely to be a lower risk activity than going into a crowded setting like a club or party, said Dr. David Rubin, a professor of pediatrics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s one of those events best left to the individual person, to make that choice and not judge it,” he said.
“If you’re in a controlled setting and you’re just with that person, and you want to take a chance on making out with that person and you think that person doesn’t have any risk of getting bad Covid — from the C.D.C. guidance, you can go ahead and make out with that person all you want,” said Dr. Chin-Hong.
If you’re vaccinated but can’t confirm the vaccination or medical status of the person you want to kiss, it will be OK for most young people, he said.
“The name of the game here is control,” he said. “The more noses and mouths that get together, the potentially riskier it is for transmission.”
There’s also the obvious logistical quandary: It can be hard to casually and quickly verify that someone is fully vaccinated and low-risk. One dating app, Coffee Meets Bagel, recently added an option to include vaccine status on dating profiles, although it does not require verification.
Can we gather in groups?
The C.D.C. released recommendations earlier this month that said that it’s safe for vaccinated adults to gather in small groups without masks or social distancing. A C.D.C. spokeswoman said in an email that those guidelines applied to all people living in the United States, and that there were no additional considerations for younger adults.
Practically, that means it’s OK for a group of about five to 10 vaccinated friends to hang out without precautions. But the larger the gathering, the more likely it is that someone in the group will be unvaccinated. While all three vaccines seem to be effective at preventing severe illness from the virus, we don’t yet know if they’ll prevent people from transmitting the virus to others.
What about indoor bars?
Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, predicted that most bars will be open across the country this summer. He also predicted that they’ll be a major source of viral spread among unvaccinated people, though they should be mostly safe for those who have received the vaccine.
“The bottom line is, if you want to go to a bar, you want to go to a club — you can, and you’ll be pretty safe” once you’ve been vaccinated, Dr. Jha said. But other experts cautioned that there are still too many unknowns — about variants, about whether you can still transmit the virus after you’ve been vaccinated — to fully encourage people to flock back to indoor bars.
Outdoor bars can be safer, depending on their setup and particularly if community transmission is low. Just be sure to stick to a small group of friends, rather than a large crowd.
What about outdoor concerts?
Experts agreed that outdoor concerts could be safe, particularly if attendees wear masks and keep distanced. Outdoor activities can support much larger groups of vaccinated people, Dr. Sax said.
“People were wondering why there weren’t more cases after the protests this summer,” he said. “Well, it’s because they took place outside. That’s going to be true about outdoor concerts, also — I’d be very surprised if there were any major spreader events linked to an outdoor concert.”
Do young people need to get vaccinated?
Experts expressed concerns about vaccine hesitancy among young people. In January, the U.S. Census Bureau released survey data that showed that Americans under 44 were most reluctant to get vaccinated.
“We’ve been selling the vaccine to older individuals as a way to protect against hospitalization and death,” Dr. del Rio said. “Most young people, if they get infected, they get a mild disease. We need to be able to communicate very clearly that there’s an advantage to getting the vaccine for young people, besides saying, ‘You’re not going to die.’”
“The faster we vaccinate people, the more likely we are to have a more normal life,” he said.