Small Family Gatherings Are Spreading COVID-19

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Small Family Gatherings Are A Breeding Ground For The Coronavirus
Anna Chaplygina/Getty

We’ve been very, very careful since the pandemic started. We haven’t attended birthday parties, weddings, funerals, or other celebratory events that required people to gather in an enclosed space. Instead, we joined in more creative and safe fun, such as a few drive-by birthday parades, where we decorated our car, blasted music, and placed a gift on the curb for the birthday child. Don’t get me started on back-to-school stress.

As the months have gone on, almost five in total now, I’ve been very tempted to throw caution to the wind. After all, the sun is shining, everyone else (seemingly) is living their best lives, and most of all, we miss our nearest and dearest. However, I’m well aware that just because we are tired of the pandemic, that doesn’t mean the virus no longer exists. In fact, the most heartbreaking stories are those where family members gave each other the virus while attending small gatherings.

I’ve seen a few friends socially- distanced on decks and in backyards, everyone wearing a mask. These occurrences seem to be few and far between, though. Mostly, my social media feed is flooded with family and friends celebrating anniversaries and baby showers, with maybe a lone, elderly relative in a mask. Everyone else is partying like it’s 1999.

Scary Mommy has reported multiple stories of family gatherings and the coronavirus. In Charlotte, two dozen family members gathered, resulting in a worst-case scenario. No one reportedly wore masks or distanced and after the gathering; they went about their daily lives, business as usual. Some family members didn’t show symptoms until two weeks after, something we’ve been warned about from early on in the pandemic. About half of the members ended up with the virus, but here’s the real kicker: Jennifer McCraken, the county’s public health director, said that the family gathering “set into motion a person-to-person contact chain” resulting in forty-one infections.


A family in Texas initially heeded the coronavirus guidelines. However, Tony Green and his partner chose to host a family gathering in June, where no one reported they felt ill. Green said, “We’re not even really going out. We’re just spending time together. Hanging out at the house. Grill, you know.” Fourteen family members were infected, and at the time of reporting, one had died.

While people letting their guard down and making risky choices is a big part of the problem, so is the lack of regulations around in-home gatherings. Where states and cities can put tighter mandates on public activities in order to slow the spread, they have substantially less control over private get-togethers.

“Recognize when you are out and not being careful, even among your trusted friends and family, you do run the risk of bringing COVID back into your home and into your friends group,” Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, told Block Club Chicago recently. “In private spaces, like households and social gatherings, the city of Chicago broadly can’t regulate that activity … And those are decisions that people are making on a regular basis.”

Despite the horror stories, I’m still seething in jealousy when I see another happy family gathering post on social media. I want to grill, drink, and swim alongside those I love and desperately miss. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. For one, I’m among the vulnerable population, living with two autoimmune diseases. The last thing I want to do is wind up in a hospital, alone, and gravely ill. Secondly, I cannot imagine the guilt of living with being the host or participant in spreading the virus to a loved one. What if they got very ill, or worse? The stories of long-term bodily damage, including the lungs, post-infection is terrifying.

I don’t live in perpetual fear of the virus. I really don’t. However, science is real. We do our best. We mask up, we distance, we wash our hands, and we don’t get together with family and friends to hang out. Even what seems like a minimal-risk experience could certainly turn out to have devastating results.


I desperately miss going to brunch with my husband, but that would require us to find a sitter for our four kids. I miss meeting my girlfriends for coffee so we can problem-solve and cheer each other on. I miss hosting swim parties for family and friends. Every summer, we normally have a few rounds of weekend visitors, including our kids’ birth families. Not this year. Summer 2020 was one of lots of family time and very little social interaction outside of necessary medical appointments.

What’s hit me hardest is that it’s almost my youngest child’s birthday. We make a big deal out of birthdays around here, so not being able to throw her a party is getting under my skin. I want to be able to bring out the cake, let her open gifts, and allow her to bask in the attention she deserves. The only way we can most safely have a party for her is if we mask up, distance, and eat at separate tables with our family. This means learning to celebrate in a way that feels completely foreign. I’m on the verge of tears every time I think about how sterile this may feel.

This is our new normal, where we need to just do what we need to for the sake of everyone around us and ourselves. If this means getting creative in how we celebrate and mourn, so be it. I don’t want us to become one of those families on the national news who refused to heed medical advice, threw caution to the wind, and ended up spreading the virus among each other. That would be absolutely devastating, much more so than simply yielding to the precautions and getting creative.

We are trying to figure out the difficult and delicate balance between reality, which is quite scary, and necessity, which is still maintaining relationships with our loved ones. Technology alone just isn’t cutting it anymore, especially not after five long and confusing months. I miss my nephews, chatting with my dad, joking with my sister, hugging my mom. I’m sad what this virus has taken from us. However, I’m also mindful that we are all here and healthy, and I want us to stay this way, for a long, long time. In order to do that, we have to protect each other and that means less in-person gatherings right now (even small ones.)

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