Ground Rules for Your Socially Distanced Get-Together

Yes, it’s a little weird discussing utensil handling and bathroom procedures. Do it anyway.

Photo: Westend61/Getty Images

The invitation nearly made me jump off the sofa. “Would anyone be open to a socially distanced backyard movie night on Saturday?” my neighbor Devon texted a few friends on our street. “I understand if no one is ready yet.”

I wanted to immediately respond: “Should I bring red or white?” I’d had almost no real-life interaction with people outside my immediate family for months unless you count the dentist who gave me an emergency filling and the kids in my daughter’s first-grade class who waved to us from their sidewalks during their drive-by birthday parties. The thought of spending time with friends — and maybe even wearing something besides yoga pants — made me wistful and a little giddy.

My excitement, however, quickly turned to uneasiness. Was I really comfortable with this? What would the event look like? How does live human communication even work, again?

We are very much still in a pandemic and the only zero-risk way to be together right now is over Zoom or House Party. But as states reopen, leaders begin explicitly allowing for small group gatherings, and prolonged social isolation takes a deeper toll on our mental health, some of us may find ourselves toying with the idea of attending, or even hosting, a socially distanced get-together. This can get dicey. People have different ideas about what’s “safe,” (and as the recent infection spikes in several states have shown, following your local guidance isn’t necessarily a way to minimize risk) so for any type of hangout to work, it’s important that everyone attending is on the same page.

Priya Parker, host of the Together Apart podcast about gathering in the age of Covid, puts it this way: “We need to make the implicit explicit.” She likens this process to a phase in conflict resolution known as “deciding to engage.” The parties determine their preconditions and purpose for meeting, so that everyone can be held accountable for their actions.

For gatherings, this means setting the ground rules ahead of time. Sure, it might be awkward and a little exhausting to go over utensil handling and bathroom procedures with your friends before having them over to discuss Ozark, but it allows all of you to feel more prepared and respected during the actual event. Here are some rules to get you started.

Make the guest list ultra-exclusive. Limit your gathering to a few people who know each other well, and more importantly, who share the same level of caution. This Covid Risk Tolerance scale can help you start that conversation. You might find that you’re a two on the scale (fairly strict), but your friend is a four (moderately open). In that case, it’s best to hold off on seeing each other right now.

My friend Rosa has been having outdoor picnics with a small group of friends — they’ll sit in a spread-out circle, eat individually wrapped takeout items, and talk. “We chat every day online and have been very transparent about our isolation measures, so we’re all comfortable and trust each other,” she tells me.

Keep in mind that kids pose an extra challenge. A gathering that includes children under the age of 10 or so will be a lot harder to keep under control than an adults-only event. (And if you have kids under seven, any plans of staying socially distanced can be tossed out the window.) If you decide to allow kids, remind parents to talk to them about not getting into other people’s space. Grover can help. Establish with the other parents whether you’re allowed to chide each other’s kids or not, as this can get fraught quickly.

Agree on a hug-replacement. “No hugging” might seem like an obvious rule, but if you haven’t seen a friend in months, it’s hard not to get caught up in the moment and give them a big embrace. Make it explicit: “I wish I could hug you, but I can’t!” As an alternative greeting, I personally enjoy jazz hands and squealing.

Stay out. Experts say that outdoor spaces are generally safer than indoor ones, so keep your meet-up outside. If you’re hosting in your backyard or on your driveway, you might want to tell your guests up front that you don’t want anyone going inside, except to use the bathroom. In an SFGate story on distanced hangout etiquette, Madeline Wells writes, “If they get cold, it’s time to wrap things up.”

Stick to the itinerary. You’ll probably spend your time sitting around and talking — just make it clear that’s the only activity you’ll be doing. That way, you avoid a potentially awkward situation in which someone tries bust out Twister, or a giant trampoline, or have everyone huddle together to make a TikTok dance video.

Know your food plan. If you’ll be eating together, discuss whether you’ll be ordering takeout or cooking, and if it’s the latter, figure out what safety precautions will be taken when handling the food. As for serving and consuming the meals, some friends have been making their gatherings BYOE(verything) — plates, utensils, napkins, cups, drinks, and even lawn chairs — which helps cut down the opportunities for contact.

Plan a hard stop. As time goes on, it’s tempting to loosen the rules you’ve set for distancing, especially when alcohol is involved. So decide on a time limit for your hangout — say, an hour or hour-and-a-half. Then when the day comes, set an alarm.

Think of everything you never think about. Try to consider every scenario that may occur — the more specific, the better. How will the bathroom be cleaned between users? Will people know to stay home if they have even a slightly scratchy throat? Can everyone agree to keep photos off social media? We’re in this pandemic for the long haul, and sooner or later, everyone will need to make their own decisions about how to act in the world while mitigating risk. You may not need judgmental comments from someone you knew from your 10th-grade history class.

After receiving the invite to the movie night, I talked to the host about many of these details, and decided to attend. By making the “the implicit explicit,” we were able to arrange a hang that felt comfortable and safe. We sat on our own separate blankets on the lawn, six feet apart, laughing, and sipping wine from glasses that came out of our own cupboards. We watched The Sandlot. And we had an actual in-person conversation — some of it wasn’t even about the pandemic. It was restorative.

Senior platform editor at Forge @Medium. Author of Horizontal Parenting: How to Entertain Your Kid While Lying Down, coming this August.

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