A guide to pandemic picnic etiquette

Corey Mintz: If we all agree that socially distanced outdoor gatherings, like picnics, are the safest way to see friends, here’s how to do it right
A couple picnics in isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. (Afton Almaraz/Getty)
A couple has a picnic at a park in Seoul, South Korea.

Like it or not, the walls of our social isolation are coming down. People are beginning to socialize again. Before we all get bogged down in the horse trading of bubble families and who is best friends with who, let’s agree that socially distanced outdoor gatherings, like picnics, are the safest way to see friends.

Many of us who are lucky enough to stay home are feeling restless and lonely. And it seems confirmed that our risk of transmission is relatively low outdoors, at a six-foot distance from each other. Restaurants are re-opening, depending on the province, albeit with a long list of rules, we can’t travel, and this weather won’t last long. So social-distancing picnics are going to be everyone’s favourite summer activity.

If this is going to be the national pastime, let’s put some thought into how to do this responsibly.

MORE: The guilty pleasures of pandemic travel

Keep your crew small

A lot of people haven’t had the privilege of staying home, because their work is essential. So their safety, and their family’s safety, has been put on the line, in order to provide the rest of us with medical care and food. I miss my extended social circle. I wish my friend Katie could hold my baby daughter and I’d like if we could hug, too. In Ontario, getting to see 10 people now feels like a treat. But let’s not get greedy. Having hosted 275 dinner parties (for a previous career), I can testify that when a group grows beyond six people, it is not possible to maintain a single conversation. So once you’re up to seven people, you’re not really interacting with all of them. We don’t need to get together with 10 friends. The sight of such gatherings will upset and worry other people with whom we are sharing the park.

Don’t eat family style

There’s nothing more meaningful to me than sharing food. I’ve based my whole adult life around it. But right now, we need to be cautious in how we do this. Either everyone brings their own meals, or the host divides up the food. No, we are not worried about transmission through food.  But we also shouldn’t set up a picnic meal that forces us to break down the two-foot barrier we need to keep. So let’s not start dipping our carrots into each other’s hummus, crowding around a tray of fruit or eating spaghetti Lady-and-the-Tramp style. Fried chicken is still the undisputed champion of picnic foods, and it’s simple enough to distribute it into four containers, along with vegetable sticks, chips and cookies. Sorry for sounding unambitious, but even without a pandemic, I believe picnic food is best when it can be eaten without utensils. My desire to slice a pie or dress a salad outdoors has not increased during isolation.

Check the park before committing

If you choose a park to meet in, and when you show up it’s a hootenanny with far too many people packed too close together, you need to find another picnic spot. This is inconvenient, and it will be annoying. But it’s less annoying than trying to enjoy a relaxing catch-up with friends while being terrorized by the proximity of bozos tossing a frisbee that comes closer and closer with each pass.

Make a circle

Just like we used to save seats in movie theatres, we can use jackets and sweaters to create a six-foot perimeter for our picnic groups. The size of our group circles should be reasonable. Unless you are Tommy Lee Jones, who starred in The Park Is Mine, a Canadian-American co-production about a Vietnam veteran who takes over Central Park, you don’t get to declare, “I am the individual who controls the park”. Don’t think of your jacket circle as a dystopian mandate, with humans forced into officially measured spaces. Think of it as a summer camp game, like capture the flag or lava tag. But instead of the ground, other people are the lava.  And instead of pretending to get burned up, the thing we’re avoiding is increased risk of spreading a highly infectious and potentially fatal disease. Fun! They’ve painted circles on the grass in Trinity Bellwoods park, which are 10-to-12-feet apart. Yes, this is infantilizing, but may be a reasonable and simple measure.

Leave it how you found it

I live near a fair-sized park. People have been enjoying it responsibly and sharing it thoughtfully. But this morning I found the benches—all ringed by multiple trash bins—littered with bottles and cups from McDonald’s, Starbucks and Baskin Robbins. As judge John Hodgman reminds us, we must be mindful of the work we leave for others. Now more than ever, when the job of selling food, delivering packages and collecting garbage is not merely tiring and underpaid, but life-threatening, let us at least clean up after ourselves.

Friends, we can do this. We can slather on sunscreen, sit outside, drink responsibly and enjoy a small bit of human interaction, without throwing all caution to the wind. And when someone’s ball, dog or child wanders into our enclosure, we can be patient while they retrieve their comrade, accept their apology and not let our safety circles devolve into a turf war.