Is it safe to hang out with friends again? Doctors weigh in

Even though we know social distancing is one of the most important parts of reducing the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), it’s also one of the hardest. But now that some cities and states are lifting social distancing restrictions, reuniting with our friends is finally coming to fruition. However, while this is exciting news, meeting up with loved ones can also be nerve-wracking. For example, even though we would love nothing more than to give our BFFs a big ole bear hug during Sunday brunches, we might resist in fear of spreading or catching the virus.

“The majority of the country has engaged in some form of social distancing for a prolonged period of time. As we relax restrictions against physical distancing and begin to socialize with each other again, we need to find new ways to relate,” Dr. Diana Concannon, PsyD, associate provost at Alliant International University and licensed psychologist and crisis response expert, tells HelloGiggles. “The joy of reconnecting will be coupled with the necessity of changing habits to support health and safety.”

Below, we connected with a few experts to find out how to safely reconnect with your friends now that some states have lifted their social distancing mandates.

Remember: It’s normal to feel nervous about meeting up with your friends

While you ease back into your new normal, it’s important to know that you can still love your friends and feel nervous about reuniting with them.

“As we move forward, it will be normal for fear and anxiety to arise as we figure out what is healthy and appropriate—and what is not,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly tells HelloGiggles. “Not only will we be struggling to determine what is ‘right’ for ourselves, but we also will be facing the needs, strictures, and judgments of others. This double-edged sword will make the journey more difficult. We will want to follow our own course, but we will also be faced with constantly factoring in the needs and worries of others.”

When it comes to handling your nerves and anxiety, Dr. Elena Touroni, PsyD, cofounder of My Online Therapy, tells HelloGiggles that it might be helpful to see your anxiety about seeing your friends through the framework of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a technique in which clients work towards living a life based on their values and goals.

“I would encourage someone to consider what they value about their friendships and weigh up the psychological benefits of experiencing the company of that person versus the anxiety it may cause them,” she says. “Ask yourself what you need to feel safe. You don’t want to push yourself prematurely, but you also don’t want an amplified sense of fear to hold you back from living your life. Consider what kind of person you want to be and then choose whether you want to follow that path, regardless of what your emotions or thoughts might be telling you.”

Keep a physical distance and wear protective gear

When it comes to reuniting with friends, it’s key to keep yourself as safe as possible, says family and emergency doctor Dr. Janette Nesheiwat. This means keeping a distance and safeguarding yourself with the proper gear, like a mask.

You must wear a mask, keep your hands washed and clean, avoid hugging and kissing, and you should not be meeting in crowds containing more people than what your state advises,” she says.

No hugging and kissing friends? While we all crave physical comfort from our loved ones, Dr. Nesheiwat says it’s better to be safe than sorry. “There is a small chance of the virus spreading when you hug. Although it’s low, as the CDC states, you need to be in the presence of someone for about 10 minutes to pick up the virus.” Think a quick two-second hug is okay? Maybe, maybe not. “Keep in mind if the person you hug is an asymptomatic carrier and breathes right into your face or talks as you hug, you may pick up the virus,” she says.

When it comes to picking the location to meet up with your friends, Dr. Nesheiwat says it’s best to ideally stay outdoors or stick to using FaceTime. But if you do want to spend time indoors, she suggests that you must wear a mask. “If you’re going to be within six feet of someone and are unable to social distance, wear a mask, especially if it’s a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Your friend may be asymptomatic but could have gone out to the grocery store, [forgotten] their mask, and picked up the virus, which can then spread to you.”

Being cautious of the spread of COVID-19 goes for food, too. Dr. Nesheiwat advises against sharing snacks with people because it’s unclear whether there’s a risk of the spread of infection by doing so.

Set boundaries

Before you plan meetups with your friends, you’ll want to state your needs and boundaries in terms of what feels safe and comfortable for you.

“Know your own needs and boundaries. For example, if you feel that physical contact is not safe or appropriate, set that as your initial boundary,” says Dr. Manly. “As you meet others, let them know in a straightforward way what your boundaries are with contact.” For example, if you see your friend go in for a hug but you don’t feel comfortable with that physical contact yet, you might say, “I would absolutely love to hug you, but I’ve decided to forgo physical contact for the foreseeable future.”

On the flip side, if you’re someone who has no problem with arranging real-life meetups and doling out physical TLC, understand that some of your friends might not feel the same.

“Be mindful that your friend might feel differently than you. Perhaps they’re more (or less) anxious than you are about meeting up in person,” says Dr. Touroni. “Have a very open, transparent conversation about how you’re both feeling in advance to avoid feeling awkward or overstepping any boundaries.”

To help diffuse the awkward vibes, Dr. Touroni also recommends acknowledging that the meetup might feel slightly different from what you’re used to. “By acknowledging these things in advance, you’re going to feel more comfortable to relax when you’re together,” she says.

Don’t be afraid to make adjustments based on your comfort level

While our choices might be limited in terms of where we can hang out with our friends, Dr. Manly says it’s key to control what you can, and let go of the rest. “For example, if you’re worried about contracting the virus, you may choose to get takeout with friends rather than eating out at a restaurant,” she says. “As you make personal choices that feel wise and comforting, your level of fear and anxiety will slowly subside.”

That might also include arranging meetups outdoors and participating in outdoor activities, or holding dinner parties outside rather than indoors. Your choices might also include reverting back to having virtual meetups if that’s what makes you feel most at ease.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented novel and unprecedented challenges. Our reactions to it are varied, unique, and, at times, as unpredictable as the virus itself. As we begin to reconnect in physical spaces, it is vitally important that we recognize that we are traveling without a roadmap; none of us have been in a situation such as this before,” says Dr. Concannon. “We must move forward tentatively, respectfully, and not be afraid to pause or take a step back when we feel uncertain.”

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