Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, backyard barbecue season looked a little different this year for many people across the country. But you may be thinking: If restaurants are starting to reopen for dine-in service again, surely it's safe enough to eat outdoors together?
Not so fast, say experts who all agree large gatherings are still major health hazards. TODAY Food spoke with a few infectious disease specialists about how to safely socialize moving forward, especially if you're serving or attending an event with food.
"There is no one-size-fits-all answer as to whether one can host or attend a summer barbecue or any other gathering," said Dr. Rashid A. Chotani, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at Health Central. First, it's important to consider the size of your gathering. But how big is too big?
According to Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center, it depends on how big your yard is. It also depends on what your state's governor has declared is the maximum size for gatherings in your county.
"That number could go up or down over time depending on whether case numbers are rising or falling in your area," she explained. "Within the confines of that number, you want to make sure there is enough space for your guests to stay 6 feet apart from each other."
None of the doctors TODAY spoke with were able to provide a specific host-to-guest ratio since there are so many variables at play. But according to Dr. Sharon Nachman, Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, your party is too big if you can't easily see everyone from wherever you're standing.
Alternatively, if you get to a party and it seems way bigger than you were anticipating, it's OK to go home if you feel uncomfortable.
Next, consider who you're inviting. While making a guest list, Chotani recommended making notes about the age, health status and general comfort level of all guests, as well as your own immediate family. If you or anyone in your family is sick — or caring for or living with someone who is sick or immunocompromised — you should avoid big gatherings.
"Ask yourself if you know who is there and how careful they have been — and does it match with what you do for protecting your family," added Nachman.
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It's also wise to pay extra attention to the weather. The doctors TODAY spoke with stressed the importance of holding your gathering outside where ideally there is more space to practice social distancing properly. If there's a good chance of rain (which means guests would likely seek shelter crowded indoors), it's probably best to postpone or cancel the event. Conversely, if you're attending a barbecue and it starts to rain, it's OK to go home if you think heading inside will be too cramped.
When it comes to the menu, Chotani suggested following some of the best practices restaurants are currently employing. Avoid shared dishes like chips, crudité platters and dips. Also opt for disposable dishes and utensils. The virus can, in some cases, be transmitted from an infected person to another guest if they touch the same item.
According to Doron, the best way to ensure guest safety is to individually wrap meals, too. However, if you don't have the time or resources to do that, don't worry.
"Sandwiches spaced apart sufficiently on a tray such that everyone touches only their own would work, too," said Doron.
Another thing to to keep in mind for any barbecue is how to guard against foodborne illnesses. While people are susceptible to these types illnesses 365 days a year, now home cooks should be especially vigilant about food safety given that it's best avoid an unnecessary trip to the hospital. A trip to the emergency room caused by an upset stomach could end up taking a lot longer these days, plus you may be exposing yourself to patients fighting COVID-19.
"I always worry about food and ongoing exposure to heat," said Nachman. "Dishes that allow for bacteria to grow, like those containing mayonnaise, can lead to problems."
She cited rice as another "classic for GI illnesses" and insisted that it's important to keep cold dishes cold and hot dishes hot.
Read more about summer food safety here.
Perhaps the trickiest food components of a summer barbecue are communal items like condiments and drinks. Doron recommended setting out condiment packets and instructing guests to only touch what they're taking. If you can't find packets, Nachman recommended setting up small amounts of condiments in pre-filled mini paper cups. If you don't want to go the individual pre-portioned route, Chotani said you should appoint one person to serve food, one to serve condiments and one to serve drinks.
If you can't have a server manning a drink station with pitchers, keep hand sanitizer nearby. Also, don't forget that when it's hot outside, guests shouldn't be without water.
"We want everyone to stay hydrated and drink lots of water" said Nachman. The best case scenario, according to Doron, is to provide drinks in individual cans or bottles so guests can help themselves. As a guest, if you want to bring your own beverage that's fine, but don't be offended if the host says they would prefer to handle most elements of food service.
All people serving food or drinks should wear masks and gloves, but do guests have to wear them?
None of the doctors stressed wearing gloves for guests, but Doron said it would be ideal for people to wear masks after they finish eating, especially if they are within 6 feet of each other.
As a guest, it's also important to follow any rules the host has set in place to ensure the safety of the group.
"The good news is that the virus that causes COVID-19 is easy to kill," said Doron. "Any household disinfectant should do the trick."
Before, during and after the party, she recommended thoroughly disinfecting all high-touch areas your guests will have access to. Remember to pay special attention to your bathroom. Guests will probably ask to use it at some point during the event and no one wants to be known as the host who ran out of hand soap or toilet paper at a get-together this year.