Is any Super Bowl gathering safe?

THE BIG DAY APPROACHES: A view of the pirate ship Jose Gaspar is seen ahead of Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 1 in Tampa, Fla. Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images/Tribune News Service

RALEIGH, N.C. — As we approach one of the biggest party nights of the year, the yearnings will begin: devouring platters of chicken wings, guacamole and loaded tater tots, while a dozen or so of our closest friends cram into the living room to watch football on a big-screen TV.

But as much as we might crave the sports-fueled fellowship surrounding one of America’s biggest traditions, are Super Bowl parties a good idea in the middle of a global pandemic? What about watching at a restaurant or bar? Does it matter if you’ve been vaccinated?

North Carolina is currently stalled in Phase 3 of Gov. Roy Cooper’s reopening plan, and indoor gatherings are limited to 10 or fewer people, with distancing and masks still encouraged (25 or fewer if gathering outdoors). And during the holidays, Cooper and NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy Cohen encouraged people not to travel or gather with those outside their households.

But not everyone listened. January was the worst month on record for North Carolina, in terms of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

So here we are again — at a time when people will be tempted to throw caution to the wind and gather for a few hours of fun.

But this is not the time to ease up on cautions, doctors say.

“We are on the precipice of turning this battle around, with the access of vaccines,” University of North Carolina Health internist and pediatrician Dr. Anita Skariah told us via email.

“We cannot let our guard down now, especially as we are aware of three known mutation variants. These may even be more virulent in their ability to infect us.”

When asked about Super Bowl gatherings during a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Gov. Cooper also urged people to stay home.

“It’s not a good idea right now to gather, especially indoors with people that you do not live with,” Cooper said. “Not only is that important for this pandemic that we’re in right now, but also with these COVID-19 variants that we see. That’s not what we want, and we hope people won’t do that. You can stay at home this year and watch the Super Bowl.”

To get more perspectives, we asked a group of local health experts about their own comfort level with these kinds of activities.

In addition to Dr. Skariah, we talked to Dr. David Alain Wohl, a professor at the Institute of Global Health and Infectious Diseases at UNC Chapel Hill; Dr. Amir Barzin, professor and director of UNC Family Medicine Center; Dr. Alexa Mieses Malchuk, family medicine physician and public health expert at UNC School of Medicine; and former Duke Health physician Dr. Sallie Permar, now department chair of pediatrics and pediatrician-in-chief at Weill Cornell Medical School/NewYork Presbyterian.

Here’s what the experts say.

Would you attend a super Bowl party if the host invited only 10 people? What if it was held outdoors?

None of our doctors had any interest in attending a Super Bowl party, but conceded outdoors would be a little safer.

— Wohl: “I would not feel comfortable at a large party right now, when we are seeing some of the highest number of cases ever during this pandemic, and the emergence of more transmissible variants.”

Wohl added that if someone were to hold an outdoor party, physical distance should be increased to 10 feet instead of six feet to reduce risk of transmission, since people would not be wearing masks while eating and drinking. Plus, they would need “strict rules about going inside to the restroom, such as only one at a time.”

— Skariah: “I would not feel comfortable in gathering this year for a Super Bowl party either indoors or outdoors. Part of the excitement is the commiserating and sharing of a meal, and it simply is not safe this year.”

— Barzin: “At this time, I am trying to continue to avoid nonessential, large gatherings. I do think that if people are trying to get together, doing so outside is the right way to do it (with proper spacing, masking, etc.) is the only way to do so.”

— Permar: “I would not be comfortable with an indoor party for a group of 10, who most certainly come from multiple households. Parties are challenging in general as drink and food is typically served, meaning masks will not be universally maintained. For this reason, I would also not be comfortable with an outdoor party.”

— Malchuk: “I personally will not be attending or hosting any Super Bowl gathering of any kind. For folks who aren’t willing to give up the opportunity this year, I recommend mixing no more than two households (one household apart from your own), and even then, it’s risky. Often, folks are drinking and sharing finger foods at Super Bowl gatherings, which I also wouldn’t recommend.”

Would you feel comfortable hosting a Super Bowl party at your own home?

For all of our doctors, it didn’t matter if the party was at their house or someone else’s, the answer was still no, for the reasons explained above.

— Wohl put it best: “If I were a hardcore football fan (I am not) and considered the Super Bowl a near-religious experience (I don’t), I still would not host a Super Bowl party this year.”

Would you watch the Super Bowl at a bar or a restaurant, if they followed capacity and mask rules?

It’s a hard “no” from all of our doctors. Maybe get some takeout this year instead.

— Wohl: “Absolutely. Not.”

— Skariah: “At this point I would still be hesitant to watch the game at a bar or restaurant. People will be eating while cheering or screaming at TV screens, which then carries droplets further while unmasked. It is just too risky with several unknown variables, especially with respect to the mutations that we are seeing.”

— Barzin: “One of my favorite things to do is just this; however, this is not the year to do so. If I can catch some of the game between tasks for work, I will do it at home.”

— Permar: “Any indoor location serving food and drinks means that you will share air with many people that have masks removed, a major risk factor for infection. So I would not spend time in a bar or restaurant. In fact, we should reduce community spread by closing these types of risky environments and prioritize opening schools for optimal learning and well-being of children.”

— Malchuk: “Since the pandemic started nearly a year ago, I personally have not dined indoors in any way.”

Would your answer be different if you had already had one or both doses of the vaccine?

Our experts, all being hospital or health care workers, have already received the vaccine. But they stress that at this point, at least, the vaccine isn’t a free pass to return to normal life.

— Wohl: “No, and I have (received the vaccine). The vaccines protect us from becoming sick with COVID-19. We do not know yet whether they protect us from becoming infected and shedding the virus to others.”

— Skariah: “At this point all we can say conclusively is that the vaccine is about 95% effective for the individual from experiencing disease from Sars-CoV-2. We still do not know if a vaccinated individual can spread the virus to someone else without having any symptoms or illness themselves. Until that data is available, and more and more people are vaccinated, I would not be comfortable celebrating the game at a bar or restaurant.”

— Barzin: “As I mentioned above, I am vaccinated. But I do not think that we are anywhere near our threshold for herd immunity where those who are immunized should behave differently than those who are not.”

— Permar: “I am lucky to have had both doses, which will protect me against COVID illness. Yet I continue to avoid unmasked group settings where members of multiple households are present. The vaccines have remarkable ability to prevent COVID illness, but are not yet established whether they prevent virus acquisition and transmission — making it important to continue precautions of masking and social distancing even after vaccination. Yet it is such a relief to be vaccinated against COVID illness — if you are offered one, take it!”

— Malchuk: “I have received both vaccine doses and am considered fully vaccinated. However, we don’t know if the vaccine prevents me from spreading the virus to others. I think about my own family and want to keep them safe — I don’t want to put them at risk. We also don’t know for how long I’m personally protected from getting COVID. Therefore, despite having received the vaccine, I still behave as though I have not received it.”