Coronavirus social bubbles might pop this winter. Here’s why small gatherings aren’t as safe as you may think.

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Wearing masks indoors can mitigate the risk of small gatherings.
  • Small gatherings are an increasingly common setting for coronavirus transmission.
  • If you're going to gather indoors, maintain a small and strict bubble and don't be afraid to ask the hard questions.
  • Holiday celebrations and cold weather may pose challenges to bubbles, so it's important to practice safety measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Coronavirus cases are surging across the US, and many transmissions are happening behind closed doors. 

Small household gatherings are an increasing threat right now, Centers For Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said in a call to governors on Tuesday, according to CNN. And with the weather getting colder and family holidays on the horizon, there will be even more occasions to gather indoors.

The problem is, most people don't have signs in their homes saying "keep your distance, wear a mask, wash your hands," Peter Chin-Hong, MD, professor of medicine at University of California-San Francisco, told Insider. On top of that, you may be more likely to have your guard down among those you'd invite into your home.

"People may think of that inner sanctum of your domicile as having a force field around COVID, but of course that isn't the case," Chin-Hong said.

The best way to keep your household safe is to form a tight social circle, or bubble, and strictly limit who you see indoors. But bubbles will pop if pushed to their limits — don't let yours burst this winter.

If you're going to form a bubble, be prepared to ask some hard questions

Forming a coronavirus bubble is like signing a social contract, Chin-Hong said. You're agreeing to take on whatever level of risk your bubble-mates may incur in their daily lives, and to mitigate the risk you're bringing into the bubble. 

The least complicated social bubble is a single household where you're forced to be transparent about your day-to-day activities and exposures, said Barun Mathema, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

If you want to expand your bubble beyond your household, you need to do your due diligence to create that transparency, Mathema told Insider. Those conversations may be awkward, he said, but you can blame any social discomfort on the pandemic.

"I've done this personally myself, saying, 'Listen, this is very awkward, but I just need to ask this question,'" Mathema said. "'I would be irresponsible to myself and my family, and to you and your family, if we didn't have this conversation.'"

The bigger the bubble, the higher the chance of someone breaking the social contract, Chin-Hong said. Two family units, or eight to ten people, can be manageable, but the risk goes up if you include people from multiple households (say, eight people from four different households).

Beware of the 'super-bubble'

If you've ever seen a bubble machine churn out a stream of suds, you may have noticed that smaller bubbles tend to stick together and form a giant super-bubble. That bubble can burst at the slightest disturbance.

Mathema said the same thing can happen with coronavirus bubbles. You may think you know the goings-on within your bubble, but if someone in your group has an additional bubble, you lose control over your potential exposures.

"At face value, it's really uncomplicated," Mathema said. "But when you add in social networks and human behavior, and the fact that we are social beings, that's when things start getting very complicated very quickly."

There will always be some risk that comes with social contacts during the pandemic, and your willingness to bubble will depend on your individual risk tolerance, Yvonne Maldonado, MD, professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at Stanford University, told Insider. Still, she recommends against letting your guard down completely, as you never know how careful other people are.

"Having a pod doesn't mean that you can stop socially distancing and wearing masks," Maldonado said. "You still have to practice some care there."

This holiday season might challenge your boundaries

The combination of cold weather, holiday cheer, and pandemic fatigue can spell trouble for even the most carefully curated bubbles. People are tired after nearly eight months of thinking about the coronavirus, and they might be more likely to relax safety measures around family and friends.

"It's a time when family members get together and you don't want to think of risk, either because it's the holiday time and you have lots of eggnog in you, so you lose inhibitions," Chin-Hong said. "But mainly because it seems rude to not hug your Aunt Sue or your Uncle Albert when you haven't seen them for a year, and you don't know what their COVID risk is."

Asking the hard questions about risk can feel contentious among family, particularly if there are incompatible risk tolerances and dissenting views on the pandemic, Mathema said. 

Even if everyone is willing to wear masks inside, there's still a considerable risk. People have to take off their masks to eat, Maldonado said, so distancing is just as important. 

"It's sort of like wearing a bike helmet," Mathema said. "Like, wear a bike helmet, but you should still be very careful on the bike."

The best way to minimize risk is to keep your bubble tight and stay vigilant at even the smallest gatherings, he said. This is not the year to reunite with the whole extended family — if possible, he recommends avoiding family outside of your regular bubble altogether.

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