How to safely—and graciously—host friends and family as the weather gets colder

Dressing warmly and gathering around a fire pit can help you continue to get together with friends outside. (Shutterstock)

Many of us were just getting the hang of pandemic-era socializing. In backyards and patios, stoops and parks, people have gathered at a distance with small numbers of friends and family for the human connections we so badly need. There was always a risk. But just when standing six feet apart and forgoing hugs (and cheese boards!) had started to feel almost normal, things shifted again.

This time, that darn change of seasons threatens to upend our pandemic routines.

So many Americans, dreading the isolation that cold weather will inevitably bring, are desperately trying to soak up the waning rays of October sun with family and friends. Neighbors are suggesting meeting up at 5 p.m. to take advantage of the last hour before sunset (before we “fall back” Nov. 1), or at midday. Apartment dwellers are steeling themselves for shorter, frostier meetings with friends on cold park benches. And with patio heaters on back order, families are laying in marshmallows (could that be the next shortage?), and bundles of firewood are becoming a hot gift. Everyone is thinking about ways to gather as safely as possible before cold winds blow them back inside. Alone. Or stuck with their pods.

Plunging temperatures aren’t the only reason getting together and hosting will be trickier.

Coronavirus infection rates are expected to rise in the fall and winter because of people going back to indoor activities, notes Neil Sehgal, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. “And you’re going to see more people with COVID symptoms, even if it is just the common cold or flu.”

The feared surge might already have begun. This month, more than 20 states hit a record high in their seven-day averages of case counts, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. And that’s before the rise in cases expected as a result of people mingling for the holidays.

Brinda Ayer, editorial lead at Food52 who lives on the fourth floor of a Brooklyn townhouse, enjoyed picnics and bike rides with friends during the summer. “At the beginning of this, we felt it was wrong to meet up with one or a few people. Now it is more socially acceptable,” Ayer says.

She’s rebooting again.

“Hosting is one of my favorite things to do in the winter, like having game nights,” she says. “That is not going to be possible now.” She is trying to figure out alternatives. “‘Meet me outside after work for a glass of rose’ will have to be, ‘Can you meet me at 3 for tea?'”

For inspiration, we might look to Nordic countries, where the combination of cold temperatures and shorter days is part of the circle of life. In Stockholm, friends still meet often to take brisk walks in the woods in January, when the sun sets before 3 p.m. “Meeting outdoors, even when it’s cold, is something embedded in our culture,” says Lars-Erik Tindre, public diplomacy counselor at the Swedish Embassy in Washington. “It comes from a very long tradition.”

Outside is still safest

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that people do their socializing outside, where the risk of disease spread is far lower. Virus particles disperse more easily, experts note, and it’s easier to maintain social distancing. The CDC this month updated its guidance to warn of airborne virus particles that can be transmitted from more than six feet away—but it notes that such infections usually have happened in enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces.

Jennifer Kolker, a professor at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, says any gathering involving food or drink is better outside. “Indoors and unmasked for me is the tipping point,” she says. “Could you have people over to watch football—masked, spaced apart, with the windows open? Maybe, but I don’t know how you watch a football game without a beer.”

Who’s invited?

Would-be hosts should check to see how many guests are permitted per state and local regulations. But experts say room for social distancing at all times is the most important factor.

Be realistic about the risks your guests might pose, and choose to invite those you feel comfortable with: What other socializing do they do? Do they have jobs that put them at a greater risk for exposure? It’s OK to ask.

“We have to get better about having uncomfortable conversations,” Sehgal says. “And if you can’t have that conversation, that’s probably not the person you should be socializing with.”

Keep it short

In colder weather, a gathering for hot drinks and snacks seems more doable than a linger-all-night multicourse dinner. That also minimizes the risk, Sehgal notes. “The shorter duration, the better,” he advises.

Manage expectations. “Meeting a friend for a small sit-down in a park on a sunny Saturday morning in the winter is better than not seeing them at all,” says Ayer.

Plan your setup

Lilly Jan, a lecturer of food and beverage at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, suggests taking a cue from restaurants, which have found attractive ways to cordon off seating or to mark out safe distances.

“You could do chalk lines and have your kids do fun borders or use streamers to delineate spaces,” she says. “It could be as simple as putting a pumpkin in between spaces.”

Setting places for people to eat is important, too, Jan notes. “It’s minimizing touchpoints—instead of continually refilling people’s water, have a carafe for them,” she says. “Or when it comes to utensils, having all of it be pre-set or disposable.”

Structures such as tents, gazebos and garages might offer protection from the elements as temperatures dip. But hosts should still be mindful of airflow. Still, there aren’t any hard and fast rules about what constitutes good ventilation, Kolker notes, only that more is better.

She’s hosting Thanksgiving for her family in the backyard. A tent she and her husband bought has removable sides, and they’re pondering the balance between air circulation and protection. This question has come up in restaurant regulations for outdoor dining: In Washington, eateries may serve patrons in tents, but only if no more than a single flap is down.

A garage might be an option, Kolker says, as long as you keep the car entrance wide open and then create cross-ventilation by opening doors and windows. “The key is to have air moving,” Kolker says.

When you invite friends, clearly state your bathroom policy. If you do allow friends to use your facilities, Kolker suggests a few steps to minimize risk: Allow only one person in the house at a time and ask that they wear masks.

Stay warm

Fire pits, chimineas and propane heaters can help keep the party going into the colder months, if you can snag one. Just make sure guests don’t huddle as they enjoy the warmth.

A thoughtful host might offer a basket of blankets (though if there’s fire around, make sure they’re not flammable). Kolker suggests washing your hands before and after handling them. You could prepare a tote bag for your family for outdoor meetups containing extra fleece jackets, scarves and throws. Disposable hand warmers could be part of your guests’ place settings.

“We have an old saying in Sweden: ‘There is no such thing as bad or cold weather, only bad clothing,'” says Tindre. They use the three-layer rule: a first layer usually of merino wool that’s worn close to your body; a second layer of a fleece or a down jacket; and a thin shell protecting against wind and rain.

– What to serve and how

Public health experts have come to understand that surface-touch transmission of the virus is less common than airborne. Still, they caution that lots of hand-washing or sanitizing is needed—and buffets or communal bowls aren’t a great idea.

Keeping guests spaced at least six feet apart as they get their food is the trickiest part—but it’s the most essential, health experts say. The CDC suggests that one person serve food to avoid having multiple people touch serving utensils and to control the flow of traffic.

Jan suggests serving food from multiple tables to prevent crowding.

New York designer and lifestyle expert Robin Wilson says you can plan a gathering that’s both careful and fun. “If you and a small group of friends can splurge, hire a food truck to bring in everything and serve it in individual portions. You have the added benefit of no cleanup,” she says.

Another idea: Pretend you are having a tailgate party in your backyard. The food can be NFL-appropriate and people can dress in layers and logos and bring their own camp chairs. You can even host a basic tea party, she says, with people showing up with their own mugs. The tea can be in a thermos; cookies, bars or pumpkin bread can be individually wrapped.

Ayer suggests mimicking what many bars do in Brooklyn: Mix up a cauldron of mulled cider. Then invite friends over for a mug, with a splash of bourbon or rum if they are so inclined. (Small finger foods may not be your best choice for glove-wearing guests.)

– It’s all about the planning

Stock up on essentials now. Evaluate your wardrobe as well as your kitchen arsenal, which could include insulated mugs, a thermos and crockpots. Tindre suggests buying a muurikka, a large, flat metal frying pan often used in Scandinavian countries to cook pancakes or fish over a campfire.

Fires bring warmth and coziness, but safety should always be at the forefront. Locate your fire extinguisher and check the expiration date, then make sure your family knows how to use it. Also, you’ll need firewood tongs and skewers for roasting food.

Even the hardiest among us has their limits, though: Snow, ice and subzero temperatures may make being outdoors too miserable and maybe even unsafe. Have a plan for that, too.

– Other ways to stay connected

If the weather won’t cooperate and you’re truly Zoomed out, try something else.

Ayer says she and her friends have been watching shows and making the same recipes “together”—texting throughout to compare notes. Netflix has a “party” function that allows people to sync up their streaming and provides a group chat for gabbing. Or there’s always (gasp!) an old-school phone call.

“A lot of my friends who live by themselves just want someone there in spirit,” Ayer says. “We might need to rethink our idea of togetherness, and it’s going to be a very important thing to do as we go through this.”

Emily Heil and Jura Koncius are writers at The Washington Post.

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