One tip for safer gatherings? Keep everyone outside, where the novel coronavirus is less likely to spread. <span class="copyright">(Alexandra Bowman / For The Times)</span>
One tip for safer gatherings? Keep everyone outside, where the novel coronavirus is less likely to spread. (Alexandra Bowman / For The Times)

Safe and sane Fourth of July celebrations used to be about managing fireworks and sparklers. Nowadays, the bigger question is whether it’s safe or sane for friends and family to gather during a pandemic.

With more and more people venturing out in public, the answer is personal: You must weigh the risk versus the reward, and plan carefully to minimize exposure to COVID-19.

Technically, any gatherings that bring multiple households together have been prohibited in California since March 19, except for faith-based services, cultural ceremonies and protests, and health officials certainly aren’t encouraging such events, especially since disease transmission rates are on the rise in many states, including California. But the health experts we talked to are also realists.

“I’m a virologist, so I could start out by saying, ‘People should not have parties now,’ but I know that’s not going to happen,” said Paula Cannon, a professor of microbiology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine, “so we might as well tell people the safest ways to do it.”

Translation? You can’t have 50-plus people crammed around the pool this year, passing around communal carafes of sangria or raspberry iced tea. It means banishing the chip and salsa bowls, using designated servers for all food and drink and assigning guests to eat at tables segregated by household.

It means keeping everyone outside, where the novel coronavirus is less likely to spread. And it also means whittling the guest list down to the number of people you can safely keep at least six feet apart in your yard and inviting only those you can trust to follow your rules.

“I give people permission to be picky this year,” Cannon said. “It’s an OK time to leave people off your invite list if you don’t feel they will contribute to your goal of keeping everyone safe.”

For instance, if you have family or friends who are vocal about their opposition to wearing masks, “My view is, ‘I’m so glad you’ve outed yourself,'” Cannon said. “You can tell them, ‘I can’t wait to see you next year, but this year, I’m just going to hang with people who care more about me than a little piece of cloth on their face.'”

These days, party planning must be all about managing risk and advance communications with all your guests, said Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA who specializes in emerging infectious diseases.

The coronavirus can lie dormant for 10 days to two weeks before an infected person gets sick, and some people can be infected without showing any symptoms, which is why taking temperatures is not a foolproof way to determine whether your guests are virus-free, Rimoin and Cannon said. (A family in Texas has reportedly seen 18 members infected with coronavirus after one infected relative interacted with other guests at an indoor surprise birthday party.)

If you are bringing outsiders into your household, you want to minimize exposure to the droplets people produce when they talk, shout, laugh, sneeze or cough, which is why experts recommend social distancing of six feet or more between people and wearing masks to reduce the dispersal of droplets. It also means limiting the number of people who touch common items, such as serving spoons, spigots, bottle openers and doorknobs.

“The safest thing is to stay isolated, but that’s not good for our mental health,” Rimoin said, “so the bottom line is yes, you can see your friends and family, but you have to put a lot of planning and effort into it and be very cognizant of the risk. … Staying safe is all about time, space, people and place. You need to think about who you’re inviting and what’s their level of risk, not just for yourself but for everybody else you live with and want to see.”

That’s part of the getting-back-out-there challenge with the coronavirus, Rimoin said. “You always need to think about how your behavior affects others.”

Anne Rimoin, left, professor of epidemiology at UCLA, isolated herself for two weeks so she could safely visit her mom, MaryAnn Rimoin. <span class="copyright">(Anne Rimoin)</span>
Anne Rimoin, left, professor of epidemiology at UCLA, isolated herself for two weeks so she could safely visit her mom, MaryAnn Rimoin. (Anne Rimoin)

For instance, Rimoin had a birthday last week. Ordinarily, she would have had a big party, but this time, she had to pick the one thing she cared about most: “I wanted to see my mom.”

Her mother, MaryAnn, is in her late 70s, and particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, so a visit meant Rimoin had to isolate herself for two weeks beforehand to be sure she hadn’t been exposed to anyone with the disease and that she wasn’t at risk of passing it along to her mom. Isolating was inconvenient, she said, but every time she looks at a photo of her visit, “it makes me so happy… You just have to decide if the squeeze is worth the juice.”

So with those of warning and wisdom, here are 42 suggestions for “safer” summer party planning from the specialists plus Los Angeles-area caterers in the business of serving good food without making people sick: Jeanie Jackson, co-owner of JR’s Barbeque in Culver City; Stephan “Chefan” Houston, owner of Plate of Hue vegan catering in Compton; Jessica Huling, owner of Les Sisters Southern Kitchen & BBQ in Chatsworth; and Anna Rose Hopkins, co-owner of Hank and Bean catering in downtown L.A.

We’ve broken their tips into the eight most common party-planning hurdles: communication, timing, seating, food, drinks, mingling (or not), bathroom breaks and whether to jump into the pool.

Can we talk?

1. Talking with guests before the party is critical to its success, said Rimoin and Cannon, so everyone knows your expectations ahead of time. “If people arrive and think you’re imposing rules on them or picking on their children, bad feelings can arise,” Cannon said.

2. Ask guests for their input but decide ahead of time what items are non-negotiable, such as wearing a mask when mingling. “You have to ask, ‘Can you respect these rules and are you safe to join us?’” Rimoin said.

3. Ease the tension around wearing face coverings by buying white masks for all your guests and providing fabric markers or stickers at each household table for decorating them. An option is buying acrylic face shields as party favors.

4. Inform everyone that the party is outdoors only (except for bathroom visits, see below) and that it will be canceled in the event of bad weather.

5. Let guests know who else is coming so they can make their own assessments about their level of acceptable risk. Cannon said she recently turned down a graduation party at a close friend’s home because her husband is particularly vulnerable to the virus and she didn’t know the other guests. “They were doing all the right things with social distancing and being outside, but I just wasn’t comfortable with people I don’t know,” she said.

6. Don’t take offense. “You have to give people the freedom to politely turn you down,” Cannon said, “because we don’t always know what people’s home situation is. Accept a gracious refusal.”

Watching the clock

7. Maybe last year’s Fourth of July party lasted until the wee hours, but this year, it’s best to limit exposure to other people, so set an end time. Maybe your invite would specify, “Noon to 4 p.m.”

Jeanie Jackson started JR's Barbecue and catering service in Culver City 22 years ago. She recommends setting a specific time for eating to minimize exposure. <span class="copyright">(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)</span>
Jeanie Jackson started JR’s Barbecue and catering service in Culver City 22 years ago. She recommends setting a specific time for eating to minimize exposure. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

8. Set a clear schedule, Cannon said. Think of this more like planning a summer camp agenda than a free-for-all party.

9. Set a specific time for when food will be served. Even in nonpandemic times, it’s dangerous to keep food sitting outside for long, Jackson said. “I always specify the time for food, so if lunch is set for noon to 2 p.m., people don’t come looking for food at 3 p.m.”

10. Tell your guests the schedule ahead of time. That way, everyone knows when the food will be put away and when you plan to move chairs into a safe-distance circle for people to talk and mingle, masks on. (Some guests might prefer to come for just the mingling part. Knowing that will help you plan food accordingly.)

Take a seat

11. The size of your party should be dictated by how many people you can safely keep six feet apart in your yard.

12. Ideally, people from the same household should be assigned to their own table for eating, so they can comfortably take off their masks to eat.

13. Place disposable plates, cutlery, napkins, cups and straws on each table, so each household has what it needs, or put wrapped cutlery and straws at each place, Huling said. (You’re trying to minimize the need for guests to get up and go look for — and handle — items they’re likely to need or want.)

14. Provide everyone their own straw so they can more easily sip drinks from under their masks, Cannon said. (But do not cut holes in masks to drink; that defeats the purpose, Rimoin said.)

15. Table decor can still be fun. Be creative and add masks, hand sanitizer, and red, white and blue straws to your centerpieces. “It’s important to lighten the mood, so have fun with it,” Cannon said. “It’s a mistake to try to ignore what we’re all dealing with, and recognize that, yes, it’s a little absurd.”

It’s all about the food

16. Choose your designated servers before the party and make sure your recruits are willing to do the job. Asking people after they arrive can be awkward and lead to unreliable help, said Houston, who is hyper sensitive to keeping people safe since his mother, Betty Arnold, the inspiration for his vegan business, is a cancer survivor.

17. If your guests are bringing side dishes or salads, request that they bring them covered. Once they arrive, those dishes should be managed by only one designated server, who handles all the serving spoons and keeps food covered until it’s served. You don’t want multiple people touching the same utensils.

18. Designated servers should wear masks and disposable gloves while they’re serving food, the caterers say, so the good host will have an ample supply, such as inexpensive food-handler gloves or more substantial vinyl gloves.

Anna Rose Hopkins and Henry Fischer, owners of Hank and Bean catering, prepare individual servings for one of their events. <span class="copyright">(Anna Rose Hopkins)</span>
Anna Rose Hopkins and Henry Fischer, owners of Hank and Bean catering, prepare individual servings for one of their events. (Anna Rose Hopkins)

19. Appoint a designated server to barbecue, another to manage the sides and salad table, and another to dole out appetizers, even chips and salsa, all to minimize the handling of communal items.

20. An option is to prep and pre-package everything, including the appetizers, Hopkins said.

21. Buy individual serving sizes, such as chip bags, so people can easily grab and go, and place extras on each household table.

22. If you are barbecuing burgers or hot dogs, create a plate of fixings — such as lettuce, tomato, pickles and onions, as well as mayo, mustard and ketchup — for each household table, to keep people from congregating.

23. Desserts should have a server (as opposed to people crowding around the dessert table), but this isn’t the best year for fancy cakes and pies. Instead, ask your guests to bring brownies or cookies pre-bagged into individual portions . If you must have a dessert buffet, provide a menu on each household table so people can put in their orders and the designated server can prepare and serve the individual plates.

On the rocks

24. No single-source containers, like kegs or pitchers or urns with a spigot, unless you have one person assigned to serve all drinks, said Houston.

25. The designated drink server can still mingle, Houston said, as long as everyone knows that he or she is the only one who can touch the drinks. “You just need to make sure that person is willing to do that throughout the party.”

26. The easiest and safest drink options are open coolers or tubs, one with bottled waters, another with sodas and another with beer or canned alcoholic beverages, so people don’t have to open a lid and root around.

27. Labeling coolers can cut down on unnecessary handling of items.

Stephan "Chefan" Houston, owner of Plate of Hue vegan catering in Compton, says designated servers are a must for parties with food. <span class="copyright">(Vegan Outreach)</span>
Stephan “Chefan” Houston, owner of Plate of Hue vegan catering in Compton, says designated servers are a must for parties with food. (Vegan Outreach)

Get ready to mingle

28. When you invite people, suggest a safe greeting, such as elbow bumps or hip bumps, instead of hugs and handshakes.

29. Strategize with parents of young children about how to keep them from leaping on adults they haven’t seen for a while (like their grandparents) and badly want to hug, Cannon said.

30. Minglers must wear masks, until everyone is sitting six feet apart .

31. A fire pit might be a nice focal point to bring people together at a safe distance.

32. If people prefer to stay at their household tables, create “visitor” chairs six feet from each table, where people can stop by to talk.

33. Mark off the sitting area, even with squares on the ground, to ensure people keep their distance

Time for a bathroom break

34. Banish cloth towels and bar soap from your bathroom and use liquid soap and paper towels to limit the spread of germs.

35. Provide enough garbage cans to hold discarded towels inside the bathroom and out, in case people want to (thoughtfully) use their towels when opening and closing the bathroom door. Do the same at the door that people will use to go in and out of your home.

36. Tell everyone in advance that the rest of the house is off limits.

27. Place hand sanitizer in the bathroom and at each household table.

Should you play in the pool?

38. There’s no evidence the virus spreads through chlorinated pool water, but pool play can still be risky because people will likely take off their masks, Rimoin said. “If people are spitting out big mouthfuls or water or chatting at close range in the shallow end, or just screaming and shouting, anything where you’re breathing heavily, that’s more likely to spread the virus.”

39. Talk to your guests with children ahead of time so they understand that people from different households should not engage in close-contact play.

40. Make a plan for helping kids remember this during the party when they forget (which they will).

41. If people want to use a flotation device, tell them it can’t be shared. If hosts want to provide floats, write names on each one so everyone knows whom each belong to.

42. Does this all feel a little much? Remember: The goal for get-togethers this year is to stay healthy while visiting with people we love, Rimoin said.

“This isn’t forever; it’s just for a period of time, until we have all the tools to reopen society in a way that’s safe for everyone. And knowing that makes it a little more bearable.”

Updates:
1:59 PM, Jun. 25, 2020: This story has been updated to include the news report of a family in Texas infected with coronavirus after an indoor surprise birthday party.