Group of people hanging out in a backyard, sitting around a fire pit
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Everything You Need to Know About Having People Over After Quarantine

updated Jun 23, 2020
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If you, like I do, live in a community where bans on gatherings are being lifted, you probably have so many questions. After all these weeks of eating alone at home with only the people we live with, what does it even look like to be with other people and share meals? When we’ve trained ourselves to avoid contact and not touch shared surfaces, where do we start with making sure, first and foremost, that everyone is safe and healthy, while still engaging in some degree of warmth and hospitality? Can we hang out inside? Share food off a communal platter? Use real plates and glasses?

Fortunately, a couple of experts were willing to answer these questions — and more. Here’s who I spoke with.

  • Robert B. Gravani, Ph.D.: A Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Cornell University.
  • Erin Bromage, Ph.D.: A Comparative Immunologist and Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where, last semester, he taught a class on Ecology of Infectious Disease. He recently wrote a blog post (which ranked various activities and their associated risks for transmitting the virus) that quickly went viral.

Let’s get to the questions now, shall we?

Is it okay to have people over (if it’s permitted in my state)?

Gravani hesitated a bit. “Many of our infectious disease experts are cautioning about opening too early and the possibility of a spike in cases as people relax their social distancing, etc,” he says. “It may be too soon to entertain friends at home.”

Bromage was a little more in the “it depends” camp. He had just recently hosted guests at his home — outside, and at safe distances — when we spoke, but said that, in his community, the rate of infection is low. (Your local infection stats are worth paying attention to!)

If you are considering inviting people over, think about who you’re asking, Gravani says. Stick with what he calls “trusted households,” meaning “folks who have been known to follow the recommendations of their health departments and the CDC, which include sequestering at home, social distancing, and hand washing, making sure that they haven’t been exposed to people who are sick, and that they themselves are not sick.” In addition, he said, don’t invite people with underlying conditions or who are immunocompromised because they’re going to be at greater risk of getting sick. 

And, of course, he said, the smaller the group the better. 

Do we need to wear masks?

Yes. The official recommendation from the CDC: “Wear cloth face coverings when less than 6 feet apart from people or indoors.” You may want to have extras in case guests come without masks.

The CDC also says to “arrange tables and chairs to allow for social distancing. People from the same household can be in groups together and don’t need to be 6 feet apart — just 6 feet away from other families.”

Can I hug my guests?

Welcome handshakes and goodbye hugs are discouraged by the CDC: “When guests arrive, minimize gestures that promote close contact. For example, don’t shake hands, do elbow bumps, or give hugs. Instead wave and verbally greet them.”

Do I have to keep guests outside or can we gather inside?

Outside really is best, according to Bromage. 

“Outside is definitely the safest,” he says. “As soon as you get inside in a closed-up house, if one of you is infected, you can infect everybody fairly easily by just being in the same room together for a while. If someone is infected … if they’ve coughed on their hand or rubbed their eyes, the surfaces they touch inside your house are now potential sources to contaminate or infect somebody in your house.”

Not only does gathering outside lower the chance of breathing in the virus, he says, but it also “really takes away the need for having to clean and disinfect surfaces like you would inside. Just the weather, the sun, the heat will take care of itself over a few days.” 

If you have to hang out indoors, Bromage says, opening doors and windows for fresh air “absolutely helps.”

Will I have to disinfect my patio furniture after everyone leaves?

Not really! If you’re not going to be sitting in them in the next 12 to 24 hours and they’re getting sunlight, there’s no need. Although if it makes you feel better, go for it, Bromage says. 

As for any other surfaces that may have been touched (doorknobs, countertops, handles, etc), yes, those should be disinfected between uses if possible.

Credit: Kristin Teig

How many people can I have over at once?

Again, the smaller the better. Lots of states are making this decision for you, capping the group around 10 people. Check your local guidelines, but don’t feel like you have to hit the allowed number. If you’re looking at a list of four names, there’s no need to pad things out. Keep it small!

Credit: Lauren Kolyn

Can I let someone inside if they have to use the bathroom?

“You want people to be able to use bathrooms,” Bromage says — and we don’t have to be afraid. In fact, his guests used his home’s bathroom.

He opened the doors for people, so they didn’t have to touch anything. “This way, you don’t have to be worried about surfaces that you need to clean later.” Then, he says, “have a small thing of wipes inside the bathroom,” and guests can use them to open and sanitize the door at the same time when they’re done. Be sure to ask guests to close the toilet seat before they flush, he says. 

If anyone needs convincing on that front: “There’s still a little bit of a risk that [the virus] may be transmitted through feces,” Bromage explains. “While it hasn’t been demonstrated that it can infect you, it’s there. So, when you leave the lid open, the splash that comes up, that can actually put a lot of it into the air. If you really want to minimize that risk you just close the lid, and then flush the toilet when it’s down.”

One last bathroom tip: Consider (temporarily) swapping out a communal hand towel for a roll of paper towels.

Is it okay to serve a meal?

We’re not exactly going back to family style with everyone passing a bowl around the table, Gravani says. And so long, potlucks. 

“I think individual portions of bring-your-own is probably the best way to go,” he says. “That would give a sense of reassurance to people, ‘that I know what I’ve got for my family.’ If everybody does that, and maintains social distance, you can accomplish all of the recommendations that are out there.” It may sound draconian, he acknowledges, but it’s “more socialization than we did locked down in our homes.”

Bromage seconded the BYO approach. “You don’t want to have a bowl of chips out there that another family can come along and put their hand in,” he says. “You’re just setting yourself up for trouble with that.” That said, he would feel ok having one person manning the grill and serving — as long as that person is healthy and has not tested positive for the virus. But again, stay away from any and all communal serving dishes. (This designated person should be the one who handles everything, according to the CDC. Yes, even down to things like ketchup and mustard.)

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Can we use real dishes or should we use disposable stuff?

Many of our collective efforts to go green have gone out the window during this pandemic. (Even farmers markets and CSAs are using more packaging than ever.) “To be super safe you can use paper,” says Bromage, because when someone’s eaten off it they can just throw it away,  but “I would not have too much of a concern.” Opt for a touchless garbage can so that guests can clean up after themselves easily and safely.

If you use “normal crockery and cutlery just make sure [only] one person touches it and puts it in the dishwasher and washes their hands straightaway,” he adds. He’s done it at his home, “and you’re good as long as you don’t touch your face …  that’s the key thing with all this. I work with some pretty nasty things in my lab. And again, as long as I don’t touch my face, the chances of infection is very very low. Again, wash your hands regularly and don’t touch your face.”

The bigger concern, Bromage says, is about glassware, “and mouths going on glasses, and then you picking it up.” In his work with local restaurants and bars on service procedures, he’s teaching people to always grab glasses from the bottom, rather than the top because with both pickup and dropoff, “that can be a big source of transfer.” To be super safe, he said, you could use disposable cups. 

Credit: Jess Milton/Getty Images

What’s the best way to serve beverages?

Guests should bring their own coolers full of ice, Gravani suggests. And we’d like to suggest individual canned drinks, too. Just wash the tops off before opening each can.

Can you still bring your host a bottle as a gift? Totally, Bromage says. Friends brought him a six pack of beer and he just wiped it down and saved it for later. In case you can’t get your hands on Lysol wipes: Bromage dips paper towels in a solution of one percent bleach. 

Credit: Faith Durand

What’s a fun (and safe!) activity we can all do?

Hang out around a fire pit! Not only does it create the ideal physical barrier for distancing, but the flames and radiant heat actually sterilize anything that comes close, Bromage says. And the updraft of smoke prevents respiratory emissions from people laughing and talking from crossing to others. In fact, he says, “one of the safest things that you can do with all of this is have a fire.”

Do you have any other questions about entertaining now that stay-at-home orders are being lifted? Leave them in the comments below and we’ll try to answer them!