Even as states open up and, in some places, restaurants start to serve sit-down meals again, having friends in the house even for a short while remains a bad idea, experts say. Getting together outside — on blankets spaced apart in a park or on the deck or front porch or lawn at your home — is the way to go.
“Much of the sentiment in the medical community has been shifting from a hard line, binary stay home order to something more along a continuum, with a focus on harm reduction,” said Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, the associate medical director of antimicrobial stewardship at Omaha’s University of Nebraska Medical Center.
With careful planning, a cautious mind and some creative design, getting together with a limited number of friends and family members can be done.
Here are some fundamental guidelines to follow.
“Outside is really key,” said Lindsey Leininger, a health policy researcher and clinical professor at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “We know that being indoors can be a risk factor for something going quite wrong,” even with a few guests.
And entertaining at home or in a park can be safer than outdoor dining at restaurants, because you can control who touches all the food, plates and table settings at all times, and be responsible for your own distancing.
Miss happy hour with your colleagues? Prepare two cocktails at home, funnel them into the strongest cooling bottle you have and ask a friend to meet you with his or her own glass. Pour out your drink, have your pal place the other glass 6 feet away, fill it then retreat back to your spot. Lift a glass to your ingenuity.
Distance is everything
If you plan on having a larger group, get out your tape measure and make sure your chairs are at least 6 feet apart. Do not place shared tables between them. If you have an outdoor space big enough for multiple tables, space them accordingly and have only those who have been sheltering together sit together at each one. Mark each group’s space with clever floor decals or other objects. “Position planters or other markings between the tables so that the separation is clear,” said Jennifer Collins, chief executive of JDC Events, an event planning agency, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
“There can still be special touches such as flowers and linen to adorn the tables,” Collins added. Her other suggestions: There should be a bin where guests can dispose of trash so that the host doesn’t need to touch it. Guests should wear masks at all times, except for when dining. The host should also have a few extra masks on hand in case someone arrives without one.
On this, the experts all agreed: Bring your own food, silverware and plates (or bring paper and plastic utensils, preferably biodegradable ones to reduce waste) and drinks, including alcoholic beverages and glasses. “This should also include bringing your own condiments,” Collins said. “It would also be great to have hand sanitizer on each table.” You might feel badly as a host — your job is to prepare a lovely feast — but everyone will accept the new normal.
If you want to share, grill
“Chips and dip are a terrible idea,” said Leininger, of the Tuck School. Ditto for any notions of making a big lasagna and letting people serve themselves. “If someone breathes over the lasagna and gets everyone else sick, you as a hostess would feel terrible,” she said.
Still, “there are gradients of risk,” she said. “Something hot off the grill poses the least of them.” If you want to provide cooked food, the best picks are grilled fish, meat or hot dogs. Have your guests pull their serving off the grill and walk away.
Don’t freak out about the bathroom
If people spend three hours on your porch, chances are they are going to need to use the restroom. This consideration has dissuaded many potential hosts and guests. “The good news is that the bathroom, with a little bit of care, is not something you need to stress about,” Leininger said. “Send people in one at a time, have them wear a mask and wash the heck out of their hands.”
Whatever you can do as a host to promote hand washing is more important than anything else. Now is the time to buy lovely pump soaps and fun decorative towels. Lay out the towels and have your guests bring them back and put them in the trash outside. It might feel nerve-racking, “but this is primarily a respiratory disease,” said Leininger, meaning that it is mostly spread by air, not from surfaces. Between each guest’s use, you might want to clean your bathroom surfaces with disinfectant, just to be safe.
Limit your circle
Follow local guidelines on gatherings, but know smallest is best.
“The more people you mix with, the greater the problem with mixing transmission histories,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering and the Department of Epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Not knowing who others have been socializing with is the riskiest component of getting together with people outside of your household.”
Kids are the hardest to keep distanced, so if your gathering includes them, perhaps get together in a park, and plan activities like baseball and kickball where social distance can be better maintained.
Remember that not everyone has the same notions about what it means to socially distance and may have different feelings about get-togethers. “It is important to give everyone grace,” Marcelin said. “Not everybody has the same attention to risk as you do.” So while biking with a friend might work for some, it may be unacceptable for others. “Just because you have differences does not give us any license to shame or stigmatize others for accepting different levels of risk,” she said.