Minnesota outdoor gatherings featuring food are as popular as an afternoon hike or watching the Twins on TV.
But unlike viewing baseball from the comfort of your couch or walking a trail, any event that includes food now carries inherent health risks, thanks to COVID-19.
No need to despair if you are planning a picnic or similar activity. There are still ways to satisfy appetites while enjoying the company of others. But it does require a measure of careful planning, said Peg Christenson, registered nutrition and dietetic technician at Hutchinson Health.
That planning, starting with the invitation, should spell out clear expectations.
“I would say, yes, be bossy,” Christenson said. “I recommend printing guidelines that you intend to follow on your invitation. Also, have a reminder that if guests aren’t feeling well, they should stay home.”
Others who should stay home include those who have had close contact with anyone who has COVID, or can’t agree with the guidelines.
Christenson advises keeping a list of everyone at the gathering, Then, if someone is infected, there’s a way to begin contact tracing.
As for the gathering’s setting, outdoors is better than indoors. That’s because the COVID-19 virus is primarily spread from person to person through respiratory droplets released into the air when talking, coughing or sneezing. When you’re indoors, you’re more likely to inhale the droplets from an infected person, especially if you’re in close contact because you’re sharing more air than you do outdoors. Poor ventilation can cause droplets to hang in the air for a longer period of time, adding to the potential for infection.
“When you’re outside, fresh air is constantly moving, dispersing these droplets,” Christenson said. “So you’re less likely to breathe in enough of the respiratory droplets containing the virus that causes COVID-19 to become infected.
“Etiquette for entertaining during a pandemic is new ground for all of us, so minimize gestures that promote close contact,” she added. “For example, don’t shake hands or give hugs. Instead, do elbow bumps or wave.”
Christenson offered these other tips:
- Arrange tables and chairs to allow for social distancing. People from the same household can be together.
- Ideally, you should bring your own food, beverages, plates and utensils. “I would use disposable plates and utensils, and you’re just going to throw that away when you’re all done,” Christenson said.
- Avoid potlucks. “But if you’re grilling, have one person in charge of serving everyone,” she said. “It’s a matter of the fewer things you touch, the better. That’s going to reduce your exposure. I definitely would not have a potluck where people are bringing food from their home (and sharing it) just because everyone has different standards, and your standards might be a lot different from everybody else’s.”
- Use prepackaged, single-serve items such as condiments and salad dressings.
- Remind guests to wash their hands immediately before serving or eating food. “Make sure there’s adequate soap in the restroom and encourage everyone to wash their hands, but don’t form a line,” Christenson said. “And consider providing cleaning supplies so they can wipe down the surfaces before they leave. Otherwise, provide a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. And if you do use the bathroom, use disposable paper towels. Don’t use a hand towel.”
- Clean up safely. Limit contact with commonly touched surfaces or shared items. Use touchless garbage cans or pails. Use gloves when removing garbage bags or disposing of trash. Wash your hands after removing your gloves. And then clean and inspect commonly touched surfaces or any shared items. “If you did let people into your home to use the bathroom, I would probably totally sanitize that,” said Christenson, a self-described “clean freak.”
Christenson acknowledged that the attention that the pandemic has brought to cleaning and distancing has brought germophobia to a whole new level.
“Myself, I would not consider having a gathering of any sort,” she said. “It’s definitely a different lifestyle. But you know, going forward it’s just so important to take care of yourself and practice good hand hygiene. But at the same time well-being includes doing all the things that make life worth living. Seeing someone’s face is better than not.”