Come for a barbecue, grab some sanitizer: How to adjust backyard gatherings under COVID-19

Manitobans have excelled at navigating COVID-19 over the past three months but now comes a new challenge: how to finesse a backyard shindig in an awkward, anxious time.

Warm summer weather has moved in as restrictions around the pandemic have eased up. As of June 22, gathering sizes have doubled, to 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors, as long as everyone can stay two metres apart.

So what happens if you want to host a barbecue and reunite with friends who have been masked and sequestered for weeks? Do you greet them with a pump of hand sanitizer? Lock the doors so no one goes inside?

“I think it’s going to be a difficult and probably likely socially awkward readjustment phase,” said Dr. Jessica Cameron, a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba who specializes in the dynamics of interpersonal relationships.

“We’re used to interacting the way we have been for so long and then suddenly the world got turned a little bit upside down. What we’ve been doing for however many years is no longer what is expected of us, and we’re all trying to navigate that.”

Make it clear if guests need to bring their own lawn chairs, food, cutlery and plates, and just how strict you will be about enforcing physical distancing. (Amr Alfiky/The Associated Press)

You want to be the same gracious host you used to be, opening your home and giving people the freedom to move around. For some, it’s going to take an entirely new skill to handle things that used to be routine, and to tiptoe around what could be uncomfortable requests.

Do you tell guests they can’t go inside to use the bathroom? How do you broach the subject if you feel there are too many people chatting too closely? In addition to host, do you now become the party police?

“It is naturally going to be difficult, and people are going to vary a lot in what they feel comfortable with just based on their personality and their own experiences,” Cameron said.

Her advice is to be upfront with guests about your expectations well before the day of the event.

“If they can’t adhere to that, they would presumably decline the invitation and that would avoid possible conflict,” she said.

Set up chairs two metres apart before guests arrive, to remind them of the need to be physically distanced, experts suggest. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Considering everyone has been drilled for months about precautions, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a party you’re hosting has some, too, said Dr. Andrea Piotrowski, a clinical psychologist with Shared Health.

And there’s no harm in quizzing people about their symptoms or recent travel, telling them, “We’ll have you over another time,” if you’re not comfortable with the answers, she said.

Make it clear if guests need to bring their own lawn chairs and food, and if the cutlery and plates will be disposable.

“It allows others to also be prepared. People don’t want to be caught off guard,” Piotrowski said.

Stock your bathroom with sanitizer wipes and post signs reminding people to wash their hands and wipe the faucets, Piotrowski advised. And when it comes to dinner, pre-plating food for guests might be better than a buffet where everyone shares the same serving utensils and condiments, she said.

It’s trickier to deal with all those issues once everyone has arrived, and it’s not fair to assume everybody will understand your expectations without expressly stating them, Cameron said.

We shouldn’t feel pressured to be in a situation that makes us feel anxious or unsafe just to try and make other people happy by attending their barbecue– Dr. Jessica Cameron

Similarly, if you’re the guest, ask what the host expects and be candid about what you feel is appropriate.

“Ultimately, we have to think about what we feel comfortable with and what we can handle. We shouldn’t feel pressured to be in a situation that makes us feel anxious or unsafe just to try and make other people happy by attending their barbecue,” Cameron said.

In spite of all the measures put in place, the rules will likely be broken, but not intentionally.

If you’re deeply engaged in a conversation, social rules can easily be forgotten, even by people with the best intentions, Cameron said.

“When we talk to someone, we’re typically naturally drawn to be close to them and approach them,” she said, noting that is a natural impulse.

It takes conscious effort to adjust to distancing.

“So if you need to remind people that they’re no longer social distancing, be as compassionate about that as possible.”

‘A temporary normal’

Most people are more cognizant of the rules when at a store, where there’s greater formality, with people wearing masks and distance markers on the floor. A friend’s home is a more casual environment and encourages people to relax — maybe too much.

But there are ways to sort of mimic those store reminders short of putting down footprint stickers, Cameron said.

“You could set out the chairs ahead of time in a spaced way. Even just that setup could remind people, ‘Oh yes, distance,'” she said.

“Some people have been at work every day for the last three months and they’ve been practicing social distancing and are used to the situation. But some, who have been entirely working from home, having groceries delivered and that sort of thing, going out will be more of a shock and the learning process will be a lot steeper.”

Piotrowski calls it “a temporary normal” that people will only need to accommodate for a while.

“We suspect we are going to go back to what we are familiar with; it’s just going to take some time,” she said. “And maybe we can make routines that become more normal, and sometimes even better, than they were before.”