Here’s what to consider before you host that dinner party inside your dining room on a nippy October day: If you make it small, and primarily comprising people under 60, that’s safer. If your guests can stay six feet apart, even better—though consider that this is not likely to happen once they have had a few glasses of wine and the board games come out.
Perhaps the most important factor is the level of so-called community transmission: how many new COVID-19 cases are in your immediate area. Caitlin Rivers, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me she wouldn’t be comfortable at an indoor dinner party right now, no matter what. But if you were going to risk it, it’s safer in areas that are seeing only 5 to 10 new cases a day per 100,000 people, and have a test-positivity rate less than 5 percent. Tom Tsai, a health-policy professor at Harvard, puts this number slightly higher, at 25 cases per 100,000.
But this community transmission number is hard for most people to keep track of. Part of the problem is that Americans no longer have a centralized source for news. Though interest in TV news has picked up recently, the three major evening newscasts get only about half the viewers today that they did in the 1980s. Some newspapers run transmission numbers on their front pages, but many Americans live in news deserts, and only 29 percent of Americans get a newspaper either digitally or in print. People tend to get news from social media, which will often circulate stories of national interest but not, say, the case numbers in a given county. Health departments can post things on social media, but how many people follow their local health department on Facebook?