This story has been updated.
After months of quarantining and isolating and Zooming, many people are ready to socialize — even from afar — with other humans.
Warmer weather has brought a trickle of impromptu socially distanced gatherings, whether driveway drinks or alley happy hours. Apartment dwellers have sought out park benches to meet for coffee. Faced with job losses, loneliness and the collective anxiety of a world turned upside down, many of us are getting desperate for some meaningful interaction with friends. But is it possible to party in a pandemic?
First, we should share the latest official guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: They note that virtual get-togethers carry the lowest risk, with “more risk” associated with “smaller outdoor and in-person gatherings in which individuals from different households remain spaced at least 6 feet apart, wear cloth face coverings, do not share objects, and come from the same local area (e.g., community, town, city, or county).” And they advise anyone hosting a cookout to “encourage people to bring their own food and drinks and identify one person to serve shareable items.”
Many people are already seeking out company in their backyards and neighborhoods, and some experts say it can be done — with plenty of caveats, of course.
“It’s important in pandemic times to not think about ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ — it’s all about levels of risk,” says Donald Schaffner, professor of food microbiology at Rutgers University. “Anything you do poses a risk, whether it’s grocery shopping or going for a walk.”
But he says the safest course — not socializing at all — comes with mental health and other risks of its own. “Maybe we’ve reached the limit of what we can do with virtual happy hours,” he says. “So we have to think about reasonable things to do.”
We’re not talking about having eight people in your dining room for a three-course meal. Sitting (six feet or more apart) in the backyard having an iced tea or a glass of wine with a friend is a better idea. It might have to be BYOB and BYO food, as well as BYO everything else. And yes, you’ll have to decide whether wearing a mask between bites makes you feel safer.
Rachel Averitt, whose Vermont company Rely on Rach does culinary and wedding consultation, says although Vermonters got the go ahead for social gatherings of up to 25 on June 1, people are still being very cautious.
She has a friend who was invited to a small dinner (two or three people, she thought) and was assured that the gathering would be safe. “She got there, and it was 12 people, and she felt very awkward. When people started going inside, she left early.”
As a host, you should communicate ground rules for guests in a way that seemed incomprehensible in the Before Times. Get ready to feel bossy.
But go easy on yourself. No one expects elegance right now. “The rules of regular entertaining are suspended,” says textile and dinnerware designer Michael Devine, who lives in Orange, Va. “Usually, the host provides everything, and you are putting your best foot forward and making people feel welcome. You still make them feel welcome, but they bring their own drinks, food and dishes.”
It can still be meaningful — and even fun. “You feel honored when you go to someone’s house now,” says Lisa Milbank, president of Caspari, a high-end paper products company. “It’s a special treat that someone has taken the time to figure out how to do it and that they are careful, but they really want to see you.”
If you decide you want to gather, knowing the risks, here’s what the pros say about how to do it as safely (and graciously) as you can.
The guest list
Starting small, with one or two people, keeping it short and staying outdoors is the most sensible way to begin. The risk of transmitting the virus is far lower outside, public health experts say, and the more people you encounter, the more risk.
Know the size limits set by your state or locality. In Washington and many other areas, gatherings of more than 10 people are banned. Officials in Alameda County in California this week relaxed rules to allow outdoor gatherings of “social bubbles” — groups of up to 12 people from different households who follow the same rules.
The number of guests should also depend on how much space you have. Monica Theis, a senior lecturer in the department of food science at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, notes that you need to keep social distancing even as people move around. “What’s the setup — can you really keep all guests six feet apart at all times?”
If your guests are drinking, Theis says, it might be harder to keep buffers in place. “People loosen up and they might not be able to tell six feet from four feet,” she says.
Think about your guests: If they are older or immunocompromised, they might be more at risk. And consider the risk other guests bring. “Are we going to invite people who have recently been to the Lake of the Ozarks?” Schaffner asks. “Somebody who has to travel for work, or because of the nature of their job comes into contact with a lot of people, like people who work for Uber and grocery stores? That’s a slippery slope and gets into issues of class that we’ve never had to deal with before.”
It’s harder for children to maintain social distancing, so consider making your gatherings adults only. Dogs can also be a problem: Health experts have suggested they, too, should socially distance from non-household members.
If you’re a guest, don’t bring a plus-one who wasn’t invited — and stay home if you’re feeling sick.
A phone call might be better than a text or email invitation. That way, you can explain what you have in mind and hear what your friends are or are not comfortable with. “From an etiquette standpoint, we are in uncharted territory,” says Mindy Lockard, founder of a Portland etiquette and leadership firm that bears her name. “But this goes back to the traditional mind-set of a host or hostess: You always put the needs and comfort of your guest first.”
Theis says it’s best to be as straightforward with guests as possible about your expectations. But don’t take it personally if a friend isn’t ready to get together. Everyone’s comfort and risk tolerance should be respected. Also — make invitations “come as you are” (no judgments on bad hair) and, if you don’t want guests coming indoors, “weather permitting.”
Food and how to serve it
Besides social distancing, the most important thing is to eliminate common touch points. Bryan Rafanelli, founder of Rafanelli Events, who staged events for the Obamas at the White House, says box lunches and dinners are the way to go. “You can’t just do a big buffet anymore.”
“I think the tray dinner is back,” says Devine, who has plotted out six-foot circles on his brick terrace for guests. “You set everything up on a tray and then your guest has their own things and you don’t have to touch the tableware again.”
Takeout is perfectly acceptable. You and your friend can order and pay separately and eat together yet distant.
Averitt made a birthday dinner for four women and three kids, most of whom were co-quarantining. Moms brought hand sanitizer and their kids’ food. There were three tables, well spaced.
Averitt wore a mask and washed her hands frequently while preparing burgers and homemade buns and salad. She put everything in deli containers with lids and used tongs for moving the food. She realized a large birthday cake with candles was out, so she made individual ramekins of chocolate cake, and the celebrant got one candle that she blew out discreetly, away from other guests.
“You don’t want to lose the beauty and aesthetic feel of a gathering,” says Averitt.
Lockard carefully planned a surprise birthday party for her 17-year-old daughter where friends came over in designated time slots and she served wrapped Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches on a tray.
Rafanelli recently went to a client’s home for lunch for three and was impressed at her careful preparation. The menu was three salads. There were nine small serving bowls on the table, so each guest had their own three salads to choose from to fill their plates with their own three separate serving spoons. “It’s not just about how pretty a party is any more,” he says. “It’s using common sense and reminding each other of how to take care of each other.”
If you don’t want to use disposable dishes and utensils, Schaffner says, you could put out a bin for people to leave their dirty dishes in. The host can later pick it up and load the contents into the dishwasher — washing his or her hands afterward, of course.
Ditch cloth towels in favor of disposable ones. Also put out wipes (if you have them), lots of soap and hand sanitizer. Nest, maker of high-end candles, is creating antibacterial hand sanitizer that this fall will come in a beautiful bottle with an artsy scent. If possible, you could set up a hand-washing station in your yard.
Not everyone is comfortable offering bathroom privileges. One block of neighbors in Alexandria has set up a regular Saturday night gathering in alternating backyards. You bring your own food and drink, and if you have to go to the bathroom, you go back to your own house.
If you don’t want guests in your house, tell them it’s a two-hour drinks party and there’s no using the bathroom. If you are letting them inside, be explicit about the WC “rules.”
Those might be more restrictive than usual, given the potential risks. Schaffner notes that in addition to potentially being transmitted on shared surfaces, the novel coronavirus has been known to shed in feces. “There is a theoretical risk that if an asymptomatic person uses the toilet, it could aerosolize,” he says. “Maybe the solution is that you give people instructions: Leave the lid down before you flush, wash your hands. If I was going to manage risk, that’s how I would do it.”
And don’t be embarrassed; your friends will understand. Instead of whispering the instructions to each guest or blurting them out when everyone arrives, put a small note on the bathroom door with the pandemic rules, and urge everyone to wipe down the doorknob on their way out.
Even modest gatherings in the coronavirus era will take lots of planning and effort, but seeing friends can ease anxiety in these very stressful days. “This is not forever. It’s just for now,” Lockard says. “There will be a time that we will be able to gather in groups again. Good manners is how we handle other people in difficult and good times. We just need to maintain our graciousness and sensitivity.”
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