A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

14 Etiquette Rules to Follow When Visiting Friends During a Pandemic

At a time when a social misstep could get someone sick, there are a few things you need to know about properly navigating get-togethers in our new normal.

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New rules for our new normal

While lockdown may have lifted in your area, the risk of COVID-19 remains as cases surge throughout the country. At the same time, many of us are weary of months of social distancing and eager to socialize with loved ones and friends, but the changing nature of the disease makes it difficult to determine how best to proceed. “We’re being bombarded with new information daily, sometimes hourly, about what to do,” says Sharon Schweitzer, an international culture and etiquette expert based in Austin, Texas. “The scientific community is giving us information that a lot of times conflicts with what our community leaders and our political leaders are telling us to do.”

So, how can you maintain etiquette, which is all about making the other person feel comfortable, during these unprecedented times? “Good etiquette really is how you make other people feel,” says Lisa Mirza Grotts, a San Francisco–based etiquette expert known as the Golden Rules Gal. “Right now, all that’s taken a back seat to health and safety and how we make people comfortable given our health situation.” Here are some guidelines to help you navigate socializing during this time.

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Understand that not everyone is ready to socialize

Everyone’s comfort level is different right now. “You may have to tell your friends: ‘You know what? I’m not in a position where I’m ready to visit with anyone yet,'” Schweitzer says. Or you may be comfortable socializing as long as others follow the recommendations of public health officials to wear masks, wash hands often, and socially distance. Just be forewarned that if your friends are a little more lackadaisical about what officials recommend to minimize the transmission of the virus, that could potentially create awkwardness and even outright conflict, Schweitzer notes. If you do choose to get together, avoid these coronavirus mistakes that are all too easy to make this summer.

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Keep your social cohort small

If you start to socialize, keep your group small—and not just for a particular gathering. It’s safer to see the same friends; it’s riskier to join different groups for meals every other night. “The key is moderation when engaging in social contact and managing the risk,” Schweitzer says.

Grotts says she and her husband have limited their social circle to people they were traveling with in December and January, before the situation developed into a pandemic. “The comfort level varies for everyone,” she says. “It’s impossible to social distance around a big group of people, it really is. Start small. But you should never put anyone at risk. If you’re a risk, then shrink your bubble to just you or you and your spouse. You have to protect yourself and others at all times.”

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Communicate, communicate, communicate

While communication is always important, now it’s absolutely essential. Ask your hosts what they’re comfortable with and how they plan to handle the get-together and be upfront about aspects of your life that may raise the risk of attending gatherings. “Most of the time, it’s been the women who have asked each other,” Schweitzer says. “Some of us may be married to or dating someone who is immunocompromised, and a lot of us didn’t even know.” And, of course, don’t attend a get-together if you’ve recently had contact with someone who’s tested positive or if you’re experiencing any COVID-related symptoms. Just so you know, these are the 6 places you’re most likely to catch coronavirus.

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Respect the host’s ground rules

As a guest, the polite (and safe) thing to do is honor your hostess’ wishes, such as wearing your mask until you sit down and you’re spaced six feet apart. “When you’re at someone else’s home, it’s no different than going to a restaurant,” Grotts explains. “A polite society has rules. You just have to let the other party know about [them] ahead of time.”

Grotts says the conversation might go something like this: “John and I aren’t quite comfortable entertaining indoors, but we’d love to have you and your husband over for COVID cocktails outside. We will leave our garden gate open, so you don’t have to worry about catching anything. And we prefer that you bring your own wine glass if you don’t mind. That way we can just pour the wine and you don’t have to worry about our germs touching your glass.”

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Minimize physical contact with friends

After months of not seeing your friends and family in person, it will be tempting to hug them. But refrain for everyone’s safety. “Resisting the urge to hug and for human contact is difficult,” says Schweitzer. “However, our ability to maintain resilience during the long term is what will save us.” People understand that now is not the time for close personal contact. After all, these 13 true stories show exactly what can happen when you don’t social-distance.

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Bring a non-perishable hostess gift

“To me, bringing a hostess gift is a polite thing to do,” Grotts says. Consider an item that the hostess doesn’t have to open for a few days, just like when people get packages and they say to wait two or three days until the germs are gone. Schweitzer recommends gifts that your friend can easily sanitize without ruining the item, such as wine, fragrance diffusers, tea towels, or candles. That said, be sure to ask your host. “If your friend says don’t bring anything, then don’t bring anything,” Schweitzer says. Need some inspiration? Check out these appropriate hostess gifts for every occasion.

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Wear an effective mask

Avoid wearing a one-use mask that you’re using for the second week in a row. Wash, sanitize, and rotate your cloth masks in detergent and hot water to keep them clean. And during the gathering itself, wear the mask as often as possible, even if you’re outdoors. “If your friends are like ours, then after several months of quarantine with only virtual happy hours, you’re going to laugh and play around,” Schweitzer says. “But the aerosol transmission from laughing and loud talkers increases our risk. So protect yourselves and others.” Grotts suggests that guests keep their masks on during a tour of the garden, for example, and only remove them when it’s time to eat or drink, as you would in a restaurant. Of course, a mask is only effective if you’re using it correctly.

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Prepare to be outside

Most people who are getting together are hosting gatherings outdoors, which is generally safer. So expect small gatherings on patios, porches, or in the backyard with people staying six to ten feet apart. Bring your own bug spray and sunscreen, as well as a sweater in case it gets chilly.

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Be ready to speak up and listen

Socially distancing outside may make it harder to hear people. Schweitzer advises addressing the situation with humor. She found a megaphone that she used as a cheerleader in high school and decorated it. “And I tell them if anyone has any trouble hearing someone from this distance, we do have a megaphone available,” she says. “We put it where everybody can see it, and they just think it’s hilarious.” No megaphone on hand? Order one from Amazon…but obviously don’t pass it around. This one’s for show only!

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Stay vigilant about social distancing

“The problem arises when people start drinking and all of a sudden they’re closer, looking at photos on a phone and then, Oh, wait a minute, we’re not supposed to do this,” Schweitzer says. But if there’s enough distance, you may be able to take your mask off. “A lot of times the couples will move their chairs back a little bit and they’ll sit without a mask on, but they’re far enough away that it’s still safe,” Schweitzer says. “They may be ten feet away. While we’re listening to stories of people talking, my husband and I might put our masks on. It’s really personal comfort.” That said, if someone is getting too close for comfort, don’t be shy about mentioning it—politely.

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Be considerate when you use the restroom

Even though many people might not want you to come inside, many will make arrangements for bathroom facilities when they entertain. Grotts has a pool house with a bathroom that she has guests use so that they don’t have to go into the house. “We don’t even leave a towel—we leave paper towels. Go in and wash your hands and dispose of it.”

Schweitzer has one dedicated restroom on the ground floor that she lets people use. “It kind of looks like a cleaning supply company,” she says. “We took out the guest towel and put paper towels in there. We also have Lysol spray and antibacterial soap. So people can wash and dry their hands, and throw away [the paper towels], and then we sanitize the bathroom.” Return the favor by disposing of paper towels properly and tidying up after yourself. Speaking of disinfecting, you might want to consider using these hospital-grade supplies at home, especially if you’re having people over.

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Wash your hands frequently

The 20-second rule of washing your hands is one of the longstanding recommendations against the transmission of the virus. So make sure to wash your hands before you arrive at a friend’s home, Schweitzer says. Then don’t be shy about washing your hands or using hand sanitizer when you get there, before sitting down to eat, after eating, after using the restroom, and when you leave. The other guests will understand and be grateful for your concern for safety.

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Don’t share snacks

The days of communal dips are gone, so don’t invade someone’s space to get your chip fix. At a recent get-together, Schweitzer designated individual areas for each person to have snacks, so no one was coming up and eating from a communal plate. Some guests might even want to bring their own food or flatware, but if that’s something you would prefer, let your host or hostess know beforehand. Here are some other everyday habits that could (and should) change forever after coronavirus.

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Limit alcohol consumption

It’s always a good idea to keep the number of drinks in check—and right now, that especially true. Since alcohol lowers your inhibitions, it could lead you to violate physical-distancing measures, Schweitzer says. But a sense of humor goes a long way. “I tell them I’m going to provide everything in cans and bottles so that you know everything is safe and that I’m not going to be carrying any virus that you’re not going to want,” she says. “Then they’ll all start laughing.”

For more on this developing situation, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Jen McCaffery
Jen McCaffery covers money, tech, products, health and safety for Reader's Digest and other publications and websites. When she’s not writing or editing, she’s growing veggies or trying to figure out the way home from assorted trails.