Over Labor Day weekend, Dr. Joseph Gastaldo decided to take in a softball game.
The 2021 Gay Softball World Series was taking place in Berliner Park, and Gastaldo felt that the event was low-risk.
“I thought to myself, ‘You know what? It’s safe, it’s outdoors,” Gastaldo said, but as he walked toward the event and took note of the size of the crowd that had already assembled, he found himself growing uneasy.
“It was people on top of each other,” said Gastaldo, medical director of infectious diseases at OhioHealth and a frequent commentator on the coronavirus pandemic.
With the highly contagious delta variant having led to steep rises in coronavirus cases throughout Ohio, this wasn’t a day to relax among a large group of people. Gastaldo decided to turn around.
“I’m fully vaccinated, but that was not a chance I was willing to take,” he said.
Columbus residents grapple with how to safely navigate events amid COVID-19 pandemic
Gastaldo is one of countless Greater Columbus residents torn between trying to avoid contracting the coronavirus and wanting to partake in the plethora of arts, entertainment, sports and outdoor events that have returned to the area in recent months.
The coming weeks promise a bounty of options: concerts are returning to large venues such as Nationwide and Value City arenas, theater options are plentiful and the Ohio Theatre and other entertainment sites will soon host a variety of events. Also beckoning are a multitude of festivals, fairs and other fun events.
Gastaldo gets it: People are eager to get back to the things they enjoy.
“Nothing in life is zero-risk,” he said. “When I drive my car, that is not zero-risk, but I still come to work every day. People have to know how to live safely and come up with a risk-versus-benefit scenario for them individually.”
How to stay safe at in-person events: Get vaccinated, official says
How, then, to safely navigate all of the returning entertainment options?
“Number one, number two and number three: Get vaccinated,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, the chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
“For unvaccinated individuals, there really are only some limited ways that you can reduce your risk,” Gonsenhauser said. “Given the contagiousness of the delta variant and how widespread it is right now, (unvaccinated people) are in a risky environment if you put yourself in position to be in close proximity with other individuals.”
Other ways to stay safe from COVID-19, delta variant at in-person events
For those who have been vaccinated, common sense rules still apply.
For example, if a vaccinated person feels under the weather the day of a planned event, it is a good idea to stay home, said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, the Columbus Public Health commissioner.
“If you wake up that morning with a scratchy throat, and your throat remains scratchy for the remainder of the day, you should say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe I need to lay low until I have a better understanding of what this is,’” Roberts said.
Roberts also advised vaccinated individuals whose households include unvaccinated or immunocompromised members to think carefully about going to nonessential events.
“I have a 78-year-old mom who I want to spend time with,” Roberts said. “In my family, we’re very conservative about the additional activities that we do.”
Entertainment venues requiring COVID-19 vaccines, masks are safer to visit
Roberts also recommends that vaccinated individuals continue wearing masks, whether an event is inside or outside. For indoor events, that’s no longer optional for Columbus residents:
Last week, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther issued an executive order mandating masks in indoor public spaces. The order, which has some limited exemptions, does not apply to outdoor events, state or federal property or other cities in Greater Columbus that have not issued their own such mandates.
The experts say that the safest indoor venues are those that, in addition to requiring masking or abiding by Columbus’ new mask mandate, also make as a condition of admission a proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test.
“I’d actually be quite comfortable going into a venue like that,” Gonsenhauser said. “Even though there will be some people who are trying to skirt their requirement and potentially even fraudulently showing vaccination status that isn’t accurate, that’ll be a very, very small number. … As a vaccinated individual, I don’t feel a huge amount of risk, especially if I’m surrounded by other vaccinated individuals.”
PromoWest Productions, which owns and operates Express Live, Newport Music Hall, The Basement and A&R Music Bar in Columbus, instituted a vaccine requirement on Aug. 18. The decision followed several smaller, locally owned music venues requiring proof of vaccination, including Natalie’s Coal-Fired Pizza and Live Music in Worthington and Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen in Grandview Heights.
In Gonsenhauser’s judgment, among those venues that may require vaccination proof and masking, smaller venues are likely the best bet.
“That’s going to be by far your safest environment, particularly if the environment does not have people needing to remove their masks a significant amount of the time when eating or drinking,” said Gonsenhauser, adding, “The thing that exposes you to the most risk is coming in contact with high numbers of people.”
Health officials empathize COVID-19 distancing guidelines at outdoor events
Gastaldo also emphasized the need for people to space out while indoors.
“I went to a movie a couple of weekends ago, and when I went there, there were very few people,” he said. “I had a mask on. I had a good time and I enjoyed the movie. … Now, if it was crowded (and) at capacity, with someone sitting next to me, I would probably feel uncomfortable with that.”
Gastaldo said that outdoor events should be approached cautiously. Those likely to be packed with people — such as the softball game he decided to skip earlier in the month — might best be avoided unless the event can be viewed from a distance.
“Outdoors is very, very safe,” he said. “However, … if you’re on top of each other, super-spreader events can happen outdoors.”
If you do go to a sporting event with no masking or vaccination requirement, Gonsenhauser said, make sure you keep wearing your own mask.
Roberts recommends that people wear masks outdoors if they are likely to come into “close contact” with others.
“If you can put your arm out and you can touch someone easily, … then that’s close contact,” she said.
Gastaldo said that the “wild card” in some outdoor events is whether alcohol is served. “People get more relaxed when they get drinking; they take more chances,” he said.
Masks are also a good idea for family-friendly outdoor activities, such as corn mazes, because those 11 and younger are unable to get vaccinated.
“They’re vulnerable,” Roberts said. “If I were going to a corn maze with my unvaccinated children, I would wear a mask and have my (children) wear a mask.”
Dining at restaurants safe entertainment option in COVID-19 pandemic
Dining at restaurants remains a safe option, Roberts said, because tables are usually shared by those in the same party and are generally separated by at least several feet.
“That will be different if you’re at a bar, and everyone is dancing with each other, drinking (and) in very close contact,” she said.
‘We have wonderful ways to live with (the virus) safely’
Striking a balance between resuming fun activities and remaining vigilant against the virus can be wearing but it is possible, the experts agree.
“We have wonderful ways to live with (the virus) safely,” Gastaldo said. “The most important way to live with it safely is to get vaccinated, and … to follow and stay current with vaccine recommendations as they change.”