How to Safely Host a Gathering or Cookout, According to the CDC

man grilling with face mask


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Key Takeaways

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines on how to minimize your COVID-19 risk during gatherings and cookouts this summer.
  • Encouraging social distancing and minimizing direct contact between guests is crucial at these gatherings.
  • Limiting contact with shared items—including food—can lower your risk.

Trying to navigate social interaction during a summer of COVID-19 comes with a lot of questions about safety. On June 12, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) aimed to answer some of these questions, issuing very specific guidance on what to do to lower your risk of contracting the virus while doing a range of social activities, including hosting gatherings and cookouts.

If you plan to have guests over, the CDC recommends reminding people to stay home if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19 in the past 14 days or if they’re showing symptoms of the virus. But there are many more recommendations for how to be as safe as possible while entertaining people from outside of your household.

how to safely host an outdoor gathering
Brianna Gilmartin / Verywell

Consider Keeping a List of Invited Guests

If someone at your gathering contracts COVID-19, having a list of people who were at the gathering can be helpful for contact tracing, the CDC says.

Encourage Social Distancing

The CDC recommends holding your party outside, if possible. If you need to host indoors, make sure the room or space is well-ventilated by opening a window. Tables and chairs should be spaced out, although people from the same household can be grouped together. Try to focus on activities that allow for social distancing for adults and kids, like playing frisbee or doing sidewalk chalk art.

Minimize Contact

It’s best to try to avoid close contact at all, the CDC says. Specifically, don’t shake hands, do elbow bumps, or give hugs. Instead, wave at your guests and verbally greet them.

Wear Face Coverings

Cloth face coverings should be worn when you’re less than 6 feet apart from other people, or if you’re indoors.

Promote Good Hand Hygiene

The CDC recommends that guests wash their hands for at least 20 seconds when they arrive at the party and before they leave. Consider making hand sanitizer readily available at the gathering, and make sure there is plenty of soap in the bathroom.

Use Disposable Paper Towels

Have single-use hand towels or disposable paper towels available for your guests to dry their hands so they don’t share a towel.

Limit Who Serves or Handles Food

Limit how many people are in the kitchen or near the grill and choose one person to serve all of the food, if possible, the CDC says. Single-use items, like small packages of condiments, are ideal so that multiple people aren’t handling the same item. If that’s not possible, designate one person to handle sharable items, like salad dressings, containers, and condiments. You should even encourage your guests to bring their own food and drinks.

Limit Contact With Shared Items

If you can, use touchless garbage cans or pails. Use gloves, if available, when you take out the trash, and wash your hands after you take off your gloves. You’ll also want to clean and disinfect commonly-touched surfaces like tables and chairs after the event.

What This Means For You

While the guidelines are a helpful starting point, effectively putting them into practice depends on your personal situation and location. Follow the recommendations as best as you can, and gauge how comfortable your guests are with interacting with other people.

Adapting Guidelines to Your Situation

These recommendations aim to provide a clear guide for as many people as possible. But of course, every situation is different, Andres Romero, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, told Verywell.

“The precautions that you need to take will always depend on what’s going on in your area," Romero said. "In more crowded cities, there is a higher likelihood of being infected whenever you leave your door, because you are constantly surrounded by people who might be infected."

For example, people gathering on a deck in a hard-hit area like New York City may need to be more mindful about hosting than those in a spacious backyard in Montana, which has not seen many cases. "Every space, city, and county is so different,” Romero said.

Who to Invite

The CDC didn’t mention a suggested maximum number of people for these gatherings, and there’s likely a reason for that, David Cennimo, MD, director of East Orange VA Medical Center and assistant professor of medicine-infectious disease at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Verywell. “No one is giving numbers, because no one really knows," he said. "All it takes is one infected person.”

Cennimo recommends thinking in terms of households versus total number of people, as well as what those people do when they’re not at your gathering. If you bring together a group of essential workers who have regularly been interacting with the public, the odds may be higher that one of those guests will be infected, compared to bringing together multiple households where you know the members have mostly stayed home, he said.

Keep It Short

The amount of time you spend with others can influence the risk of COVID-19 transmission. "COVID-19 spread [happens through] viral shedding, and the longer you are in contact, the more virus is shed," Suzanne Willard, PhD, a clinical professor and associate dean for global health at the Rutgers School of Nursing, told Verywell.

What Is Viral Shedding?

Viral shedding happens when a virus replicates inside a host and is then released, posing a risk of disease transmission.

Overall, experts stress the importance of keeping in mind that any interaction with people outside of your household comes with some risk. “Unfortunately, people don’t light up when they’re infected and there is no specific look to someone with COVID-19,” Willard said.

Ultimately, Cennimo explained, it comes down to your risk tolerance. “You can do as much as you can to mitigate risk but you have to figure out what level of comfort you have when interacting with others," he said.

A Word From Verywell's Medical Expert Board

"Summer is the time for outdoor barbecues and get-togethers. The CDC offers advice to reduce coronavirus risk while socializing. Stay outdoors and minimize physical contact. Limit the number of guests and duration of parties. Wear face coverings and avoid contact with shared items. We all need human interaction, especially after months of sheltering in place. The key is to engage only in the type and amount that feels comfortable to you." — Anju Goel, MD, MPH

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

1 Source
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19: Personal and Social Activities.

By Korin Miller
Korin Miller is a health and lifestyle journalist who has been published in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF, Women's Health, The Bump, and Yahoo, among other outlets.