Emily Post’s etiquette guide offers tips on everything from dealing with an inebriated guest to extricating oneself from a racist conversation. Nowhere, though, is there a chapter on how to host or attend a gathering mid-pandemic. Six months into life with COVID-19, charities are starting to resume much-needed fundraising events, leading the way by putting in place policies that allow for both fun and safety. And with holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas on the horizon, home hosts might be able to pick up a tip or two for their own get-togethers (adhering, of course, to current public-health advice).
On Sept. 9, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research was the first organization to host a major fundraiser not only in-person but indoors since the COVID-19 lockdown began. Alex Filiatrault, CANFAR CEO and ardent social butterfly, says the event felt like nothing before.
“Every individual had an e-mail with protocol to follow with arrival times, and once inside, we had five different rooms,” he says. The Aria ballroom at the Four Seasons hotel, which has hosted 500-person gatherings, welcomed just 45 guests. Conceived by the Four Seasons, in accordance with recommendations from experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine, who are currently consulting on the hotel chain’s health and safety measures, the event seated 10 people at tables that typically held 20. “Everyone was in masks and had their temperature taken,” Filiatrault says, while describing the mood inside as “something very sort of respectful, very peaceful and almost solemn.”
Suzanne Boyd, editor-in-chief and publisher of Zoomer Magazine, is a Toronto social-scene staple who recently served as a co-chair of the Artists for Peace and Justice Gala, a dinner held Sept. 12 that raised funds for the Academy, a secondary school in Haiti. Boyd says the decision to move forward with the event was based on a real need for funds. “The Academy really does count on this event, as it has for 12 years, for fundraising,” she says. The APJ gala was held outdoors; guests filled out waivers to pre-screen for COVID-19, temperatures were taken on arrival, masks were worn and physical distancing was observed. Boyd says her guiding principle for accepting invites is based on balance and respect. “You do want to be supportive, because so many livelihoods benefit,” she says, while underlining the respect we must all have for the health crisis.
For philanthropically minded Heather Gotlieb, both events, which she attended, were energizing. “I did pause for a moment and thought, how exciting!” she says of receiving the invites, but reality quickly set in. “You ask is this safe? Can I go? And even though I want to go, is it the responsible thing to do?” Ultimately, she based her decision on a few factors, namely confidence in where it was being hosted and who was hosting it.
While over the summer, Gotlieb has hosted couples in her garden for distanced cocktails, the CANFAR event was her first foray into indoor socializing. Since lockdown measures were eased and patios started to open, she’d noticed that some people can get caught up in the moment and break distancing guidelines. “It’s almost like they forget themselves, they extend a hand and say, ‘How are you?’ and you’re looking at their hand going I can’t touch you!”
This should-I-shouldn’t-I moment with greetings has become all too common. Dr. Eva Klein, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University, says a rise in the “risk-to-happiness ratio” is a reason for this casual behaviour. “We’re social beings,” she says, “so just isolating makes some of us very very unhappy, so now we’re saying, you know what, it’s worth taking more risks.”
California-based etiquette expert Elaine Swann says that this behaviour needs to be called out. “If you’re at a dinner and everyone has agreed to follow protocol and you see someone not doing it, if you know the person, that’s when you say, ‘Don’t forget your mask,’" she says. "If you don’t know them, utilize the authority figure present to manage that individual.”
Both Swann and Klein say that now is the time to be confident in your decisions and to say no to hugs or invites if you’re uncomfortable. Klein says in these times “a host has to bridge an array of attitudes that allows for mutual respect and enjoyment,” adding that it’s the duty of the host to create a safe environment. “That means that they have to take the most risk-averse person into consideration and make them comfortable,” she says.
Swann feels the most important thing a host can do is not just lay out expectations for a gathering but also include the consequences. “If your guideline is that people practice a six-foot distance and wear a mask, put it on your invitation, and as harsh at it may seem, as a host you have to say: If you do not comply, we will have to ask you to leave,” she says, adding “This lets your guests know that you really have their best interest in mind and will make them feel more comfortable coming to your party.” Etiquette, she says, during a pandemic or not, at its core is about putting others at ease.
Wedding and event planner Grace Arhin offers tips on how to navigate festive gatherings on the horizon
Embrace the outdoors
“If you can, extend and utilize outdoor space. Picnics were a huge trend this year, and there are a lot of retailers that are offering low tables and picnic tables. Since October will be cooler, try layering the space with blankets or think about getting an outdoor heater.”
Spread the love
“A host has to be really intentional about where individuals are going to be seated, so ensure that guests who are in the same social bubble or same household are seated together. Even when outdoors, you have to be creative. I suggest renting or buying some extra tables to have multiples of the same table to configure according to restrictions.”
“Masks are a must, and even if you’re gathering outside, I still highly encourage guests to wear them. As a host, this is a chance to have some fun. Maybe think of getting custom masks with a family motto, last name or monogram printed.”
Pack it up
“Anything communal in terms of dining, like passed appetizers or buffets, is highly discouraged. There are a few caterers, like Elle Cuisine in Toronto, who have created personalized guest meals that are individually packaged. If grandma or mum finds joy in cooking family meals, you can create custom individual boxed meals at home."
“Hosts should have thermometers. It seems invasive, but have one on hand so you can check guests before they enter your home – even if they are just going to be in the backyard. To maintain social distancing, be intentional about the flow of traffic and logistics during an event. It helps people navigate the space in an obvious way.”
Raise a glass, from afar
“For those connecting digitally, an activity like a set cocktail hour can help everyone feel included. Hosts might want to come up with a cocktail or mocktail recipe and then set a specific time on Thanksgiving day for everyone to mix the drink and have a happy hour together. During this time, try getting everyone to go around and share what they’re grateful for right now despite the year we’ve had.”