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The New Rules for Safer Summer Cookouts

CDC issues health guidelines for hosting backyard barbecues during the pandemic

spinner image A family having a cookout
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Hosting a safe cookout used to mean keeping the potato salad cold, the grill flames low and the mosquitoes away. But these days there's a whole new list of concerns to consider — chief among them, should you be having a cookout in the first place?

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the advice from public health experts has been to stay home as much as possible and to avoid groups of people. On June 12, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a new set of guidelines to help people who are eager to break out of quarantine do so in a way that minimizes their risk for catching and spreading the virus.

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"The pandemic is not over, and it's important to recognize that,” Jay Butler, the CDC's deputy director for infectious diseases, said in a media briefing. That said, “we recognize that we are all getting tired of staying at home … and as we head into the summer months we know that Americans will be looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends and be able to attend events, and we want that to occur as safely as possible.”

The new guidelines have prevention strategies for several routine activities, such as running to the bank, working out at the gym and traveling overnight.

Hosting friends and family for a meal is also on the list. Here's how to do that as safely as possible during the pandemic.

On the menu: A single server with a side of hand sanitizer

Before you venture out or invite others over, it's important to assess your risk. Consider whether COVID-19 is spreading in your community or whether you or someone you live with is more likely to get severely ill from a coronavirus infection.

If you decide to move ahead with plans, the CDC recommends implementing a few preventive measures to reduce the odds that your backyard barbecue will turn into a hot zone. At the top of the list: Remind anyone who hasn't been feeling well or who has come in contact with someone who has COVID-19 to stay home and away from others.

"Even if your belly is a little off but you think it's OK, don't come,” advises Gonzalo Bearman, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at VCU Medical Center and director of the hospital's health care infection prevention program. “That should be strongly encouraged.”

Second, try to keep guests outside as much as possible. Inside, “you have a greater concentration of virus in the air and a greater chance of infection,” Bearman says. Outdoors, the virus can disperse more easily, which “decreases infectivity.” It's also easier to maintain a distance of at least 6 feet from other people when you're outside — and that's another tip on the CDC's guide to a safer summer cookout. Also, wear a face mask if you are medically clear to do so, and wash your hands often, especially before and after eating.

Consider adding BYOB to your party invite; guests may want to bring their own plates, utensils and cups, too. The CDC says it's best to minimize shared items, and if you have a few out (think bottles of barbecue sauce or salad dressing), identify one person to serve them.

"What we understand about viral-transmission dynamics is that about 70 or 80 percent of it is from the droplets that we inhale, but then there's still 20 to 30 percent that comes from contact with inanimate environment — we touch that with our hands or a mouth or mucous membranes, and that's how we get secondarily infected,” Bearman explains.

More safety tips for cookouts

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Here are a few more suggestions from the CDC for hosting or attending summer soirees.

  • Don't hug and shake hands when your guests arrive; instead, wave and verbally greet them.
  • Provide a few extra face coverings for guests who don't have one or who forget to bring their own.
  • Set out hand sanitizer (make sure it's at least 60 percent alcohol), and provide clearly marked handwashing areas.
  • Provide cleaning supplies that allow guests to wipe down surfaces before they leave.
  • Arrange tables and chairs to allow for social distancing. Not everyone needs to be 6 feet apart — people from the same household can be closer.
  • Make sure you clean reusable shared items before and after the event.
  • Limit people going in and out of areas where food is being prepared, such as near the grill and in the kitchen.
  • Planning activities or lawn games? Keep social distancing in mind. Consider cornhole, sidewalk chalk or frisbee.
  • Replace shared hand towels in the bathroom and kitchen with single-use towels.
  • Keep a list of guests who attended for potential future contract tracing needs.

The general rule of thumb, the CDC's Butler says, is that “the more closely you interact with others, the longer the interaction lasts, and the greater the number of people involved in the interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.”

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With proper distancing, good hand hygiene and face coverings, “you can certainly risk-mitigate” to make a cookout or dinner with friends “safer than it would be otherwise,” Bearman says. Of course, the safest option is to avoid social interactions. “But then again, we're also social beings and aren't meant to be alone all the time after periods of isolation.”

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