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July is traditionally a month of celebration here in Maine — family reunions, anniversaries, the Fourth of July, or even just a party for a party’s sake. Not much is normal about July 2020, however, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague much of the country, and remains a threat here in Maine, even with our relatively low case count compared to other states.
Regardless, people are still going to have parties. And despite the looming specter of the virus hanging around, it’s possible to plan a get-together that is both safe and fun. The BDN asked Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth and former head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for her best advice on how to host a party safely.
Host outdoors, not indoors
One of the easiest ways to ensure a high level of safety from virus transmission is to host your event outdoors. Research has shown that it’s more difficult for airborne water droplets to land on people if the air is moving, as it is outdoors, compared to indoor settings, where the air is more likely to be still.
Ideally, any outdoor setting should be big enough for each household or individual to be six feet away from one another — try measuring out 6-foot spaces between chairs or groups of chairs, to make it easier for guests. If you want to offer games, try something that requires space between players or teams, such as cornhole, rather than card games or pick-up basketball. If there’s swimming involved, don’t share water toys, towels or lifejackets.
If you still want to host an event and don’t have an outside setting as an option, Mills says to make sure your guest list is the right size to accommodate the size of your interior space.
“Pick a number of people that you know you can host inside and still keep that six-foot or more distance,” said Mills. “That’s where numbers are really important.”
Know your guest list
While it flies in the face of etiquette, this year, when you’re having people over, you need a guest list that doesn’t have any plus-ones. Limit your guest list to a number you feel safe with, invite them over, and make sure they RSVP and are aware of whatever house rules or boundaries you plan to set, including rules about when to wear a mask, what types of food and beverage to bring, and so on.
Though gatherings of up to 50 people are permitted per the governor’s orders, it’s likely any private party a person plans will include far fewer people — five, 10, or perhaps 20, but not many more than that. Keep it to the people whom you invited, and if someone asks at the last minute if they can bring their new friend, kindly but firmly say no.
“We hosted a graduation party for my daughter, and we kept it small and made it explicitly clear that people needed to stay distant, and to not bring any uninvited guests,” said Mills. “It might make some people think you don’t trust them, but make sure you explain that that is not the case. It’s about safety for everyone.”
To mask or not to mask?
When it comes to mask-wearing at a private event with a limited guest list, Mills says it depends entirely on who’s coming, and how much space you have.
“It’s all about those layers of protection. The more you have, the safer you are,” she said. “Being outside, that’s a layer. Staying six or more feet apart, that’s a layer. Wearing a mask, that’s a layer. Hand hygiene, that’s a layer.”
Everyone has a different level of comfort when it comes to risk versus safety, said Mills, and if your guest list includes only healthy people under the age of 65, it might be OK to not wear masks but maintain the other layers of protection. But she cautions that if your guest list includes people over the age of 65, or people with compromised immune systems, masks should be a part of your party.
“The only way to eliminate the risk entirely is to never, ever go outside or see other people,” said Mills. “But that’s just not going to happen for most of us, so the question then is ‘How can I be as safe as possible?’”
What about the bathroom?
If guests aren’t allowed inside the house, then where will they go to the bathroom? Mills says that party planners should decide which bathroom in the house guests can use, instruct guests to go straight to the bathroom and back, and to use hand sanitizer before and after leaving the bathroom — in addition, of course, to washing your hands as you normally would. Make sure to have paper towels for guests to use, instead of regular hand towels.
Designate a food server
If you’ve got a barbecue or potluck-style meal planned, set out all the food and have one designated person put each food item on each plate, so you don’t have 15 people all touching the same serving spoon.
Emphasize individual servings, rather than communal serving. Instead of a bag of chips that everyone sticks their hand into, offer snack-size bags, and if you’re going to have dip, put them in individual bowls. For burger and hot dog toppings, consider putting ketchup, mustard and other condiments in several bowls for each household, rather than having one container everyone touches. For dessert, opt for individual items such as cupcakes, bars or cookies, rather than pies, cakes or cobblers that require serving.
As for beverages, you should bring your own, or keep it to cans or bottles in a cooler that stays open, rather than big bottles of soda, pitchers of lemonade or punch bowls of sangria that everybody keeps touching all afternoon. And, of course, use disposable plates, napkins and cutlery, rather than dishware that will be brought inside afterward.
Inevitably, Mills says, there will be surfaces that multiple people touch. That’s why she recommends having hand sanitizer stationed throughout your entertaining area, and reminding people to “gel up” as often as they can.
“You can twist yourself into a pretzel trying to disinfect every surface and make sure nobody touches anything,” she said. “But it’s much easier to just keep your own hands as clean as possible. You can control that. You can’t control what every single other person is doing.”
Resisting the urge to hug
Small children — and, let’s be honest, some adults — that haven’t seen their grandparents, cousins or friends for months may be eager to leap into their arms upon first sight. It’s important for parents to make sure their children know that just because we’re able to see each other now, that doesn’t mean social distancing is out the window.
“Of course we want to hug each other. But right now, we are just not at a point where we can do those sorts of things whenever we want,” said Mills. “It’s the asymptomatic people that spread this around. That is the reality. The more of those layers of protection that you have — social distancing, hand hygiene, being outdoors, masking — the safer you’ll be, and the less you’ll have to worry about.”