Setting the table outdoors for Thanksgiving dinner in a pandemic could be more daunting than making the gravy.

There’s so much to remember: Non-household members six feet apart. No buffet table with heaping platters. Blankets at every place setting. Propane for the heater. Hand sanitizer pumps next to the centerpieces.

It’s challenging, and it’s obviously not an option in many parts of the country, but Thanksgiving alfresco can be done if the weather permits and you take safety precautions. “Everyone has an obligation to be careful,” says Rebecca Gardner of Houses and Parties, an event-planning and design company in Savannah, Ga., and New York. “Thanksgiving outdoors in the crispy-crunchy fall is festive and fun, as long as you are respectful to the way food is served and who you have there.”

According to the latest information on holiday celebrations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hosting a small, outdoor dinner with family and friends from your community is a moderate-risk activity.

“My kind of mantra going into the holiday season is that when it comes to covid, it’s not what you do, but how you do it,” says Iahn Gonsenhauser, an internist and the chief quality and patient safety officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Gonsenhauser says that for him, a small group eating outdoors is the third-best choice for Thanksgiving, in terms of safety. The first is a virtual holiday; the second is a brief drive-by greeting with everyone masked and socially distancing.

For an outdoor gathering, sitting six feet away is essential, as is wearing masks when not eating. If you have distinct households getting together, group them at separate, distanced tables. If you want to do this on a screened porch, he says, assess the airflow and start your ceiling fans. “I am cautioning people about tents,” he says. “Tents will be four walls sealed up; you are just re-creating an interior space.” Tailgate or pop-up tents with two or more open walls are acceptable, he says.

Because the table is the focus, Gonsenhauser suggests adding bottles of hand sanitizer to each one. “You need to be vigilant about hand hygiene,” he says. (Another idea: Place a travel-size bottle of personal hand sanitizer next to the chocolate turkeys at each place setting.) No buffets. Avoid multiple people touching serving spoons; either plate the food in the kitchen or have an appointed server at each table who cleans their hands often.

Go with your own style. If you like the idea of keeping rituals, such as using Grandma’s china, Gardner says to stick to your traditional table setting outdoors. “It’s still a special occasion, and it’s wonderful to set a beautiful table with your nice things, ” she says. Make it as nice as you can while keeping social distancing in mind. Rent large, lightweight folding tables if you need to, so you can space people appropriately.

If you’re handy with a sewing machine (or know someone who is), get a length of fabric you like. To cover the legs of the table, you’ll need two widths of fabric with a seam down the center. Choose a busy print, so you don’t have to match the pattern at the seam. You can also whip up matching masks to be given as party favors, she says.

It’s fine to take a year off from china, crystal and silver if you’re not feeling fancy. “We’ve been staring at the same rooms since March. Shake it up. Create a new environment. Do something wild,” Gardner says. Make it festive with inexpensive paper lanterns from
paperlanternstore.com, cantina string lights or curly streamers over the backs of chairs. Get a good playlist going. Have a boho picnic with layered quilts, tablecloths and pillows, socially distanced. Serve the meal in bento boxes tied with ribbon.

If you prefer simpler fare as you juggle all of the outdoor precautions and navigate the cold and the wind, turkey sandwiches and apple hand pies might be the way to go, says Taryn Williford, lifestyle director at Apartment Therapy. And don’t be fixated on the date; the celebration doesn’t have to be Nov. 26. This year, it could be a day or two earlier or later if that’s your best shot.

“Go with the party on the date the forecast looks most forgiving,” Williford says. “Everyone is working from home; nobody will be going shopping. You can be flexible about it. The important part is the gathering and connection with people.”

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