As lockdown rules ease across Canada, people are once again starting to socialize. Most get-togethers are happening in parks and backyards, where there is less of a risk of COVID-19 transmission and it is easier to adhere to two-metre physical distancing rules. My husband and I started entertaining on a warm Friday night when we invited three neighbours over for a happy-hour drink. We spaced out chairs in the yard at two-metre intervals, and it was a BYOE (bring your own everything) event, which let’s face it, was easy to host. Except for one guest who petted the dog—which didn’t concern me too much—it went off without a hitch. No one stayed long enough to need the washroom, and we adhered to the physical distancing guidelines.
We longed to host a dinner, but that seemed trickier. There was no go-to guide on how to throw a dinner party in a pandemic. We finally worked up the courage, and, using what we knew about virus transmission, mapped out our own plan. It was a success—in that everyone had a good time and no one got sick—but I was curious about what the experts would say are the best practices for entertaining in the time of COVID-19. And so, I asked two for some guidance: Dr. Vinita Dubey, Toronto Public Health’s Associate Medical Officer of Health (Dubey stressed that she can only speak to the situation in Toronto, where gatherings of up to 10 people from different households are allowed, with attendees practicing physical distancing), and Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Health Sciences.
How are physically distanced gatherings different from social circles?
“You can’t pick and choose your social circle by the day; essentially it’s an expanded household,” Dubey says. You should only let your guard down with another household if everyone in it agrees to keep the arrangement reciprocal and exclusive. (Click here to read more about social circles and bubbles in Canada.)
A dinner party with friends is different than a social circle; it should be a physically distanced gathering. That means no hugs or kisses, and seating everyone from separate households a full two metres apart. Both of our experts agree social distancing is the number-one protective measure against COVID-19. “And for sure outdoors is better than indoors,” says Dubey. But, unless you are in a park or have a huge yard with lots of outdoor furniture, that’s more difficult than it sounds. When we threw our first dinner of a few small dinner parties this spring, we used several small tables to cobble together a safe seating arrangement, restaurant-style.
How risky is having people in your backyard at all?
Deonandan says COVID-19 is transmitted more easily at indoor gatherings, but the risk of hosting a small backyard party while carefully adhering to physical distancing is slight. If the party is outdoors and someone is ill, the droplets from their breath tend to blow away, he says. “Dinner parties indoors are still not advisable.” However, even outside, talking face to face for hours presents some risk, Deonandan says. So, it’s crucial to maintain that two-metre distance. Dubey agrees and says before writing a guest list, make sure you have the room to keep everyone spaced out. And, obviously, if anyone is feeling at all unwell–stay home.
Do you need to wear a mask even if you’re outside and being careful to stay two metres apart?
Deonandan says if your gathering includes people worried about catching the virus, you could ask everyone to wear masks as an extra layer of precaution. But he admits, “dinner parties and masks don’t really go together.” You can’t wear a mask when eating or drinking. Dubey also recommends keeping the tunes low. “If the music is loud and people can’t hear, they may inch closer together.”
What if people need to use the bathroom? Do they need to bring their own toilet paper and Lysol wipes?
The COVID-19 virus can live on surfaces, and although unlikely, it is possible to get sick by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, Deonandan says. So, guests should avoid touching surfaces as much as possible. In a bathroom, that’s unavoidable, so the best defence is proper hand-washing—for a solid 20 seconds—and then drying hands with paper towel. (Note to hosts: leave a roll out on the counter.) “Hand sanitizer is not as good as soap and water,” Deonandan says. Still, it’s a good idea to have sanitizer on hand for guests who want to double up on cleaning before or after eating.
What about serving drinks? Should people bring their own glass? What about their own drink?
We asked our guests to bring their own beverages and glasses to our first happy hour. But Dubey says that’s probably not necessary, so long as the hosts wash their hands before setting out glasses and serving drinks. She says the same precautions being taken by restaurants—including wrapping clean cutlery up in a serviette and having clean hands or gloves when table setting—apply for an outdoor dinner party, too.
Can I serve food? How does that work?
Both our experts say if food is served correctly, it does not increase the risk to guests. “Where we have to be careful is the buffet situation, where we are all holding the same utensil,” Dubey says. If the food is portioned out by the hosts and served to guests on a plate, everything should be fine. At our first dinner, we plated the food and served it at arm’s length. I felt we were doing well until I saw one of our guests dip two fingers into the salt cellar, which my husband had mistakenly set on the table.
Can people pet my dog—and what about touching the chairs and cushions?
If your dog is friendly, and no one can resist giving it a pat, don’t sweat it, says Deonandan. Just be sure to wash your hands before touching your face. The same goes when handling dishes, chairs and cushions your guests have touched.
What are the rules in various provinces?
Since provinces are reopening at different rates, rules around social gatherings differ among them—and may even differ region to region. In all cases, members of separate households who aren’t in a social circle (depending on the rules in that region) must adhere to distancing guidelines.
In Ontario, gatherings of up to 10 people from different households are allowed, with attendees practicing physical distancing.
Quebec allows indoor gatherings of 10 people from a maximum of three households, stressing that outdoor gatherings “are preferable;” guests who aren’t from the same household must maintain a two-metre distance from each other.
The number in B.C. is lower at six, while next door in Alberta, people can socialize indoors with up to 15 people from other households and up to 50 outside.
New Brunswick allows outdoor gathering of 10 people from outside the household and social distancing is still recommended.
In Newfoundland, it’s up 20 outdoors, at a two-metre distance.
In Yukon, it’s up to 10 people at a distance; in Northwest Territories it’s up to 25 outdoors, at a distance, and in Nunavut physically distanced outdoor gatherings are capped at 25 people.
Things can change quickly, so check before you make plans.
My husband and I intend to keep entertaining outdoors as long as weather permits, knowing we and our guests will make a few mistakes along the way. Getting together with friends makes life seem so normal, it’s easy to forget about the pandemic. Sadly, the virus is still out there, so when your friend starts to hand you her phone to look at a funny meme, ask her to send you the link instead.
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