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Dinner at a distance

By on August 24, 2020 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Outdoor dinner guests are allowed under current regulations, but just how careful must we be as the coronavirus swirls?

Weighing the guidelines when hosting friends to a BBQ during the pandemic

By Jamie Howell

I’m a hugger. Or at least I was before the virus hit.

I close in on our dinner guests as they come around outside to the backyard, eager to demonstrate my happiness at seeing them, at seeing anyone in person. 

Up come the protective elbows. Ah, right! We’re in a PANDEMIC, you clod!

Somehow, I’ve managed to forget the rules in that tiny slice of day between the last news story I encountered and their arrival.

Sheepishly, I bump elbows. 

Such a lucky joint, I think, this elbow of ours, somehow able to rise above all the science and contagion. Internally, I recommit to the idea that there will be no more touching of anybody for the rest of the evening.

We are flirting with disaster as it is, having people over for dinner. But, frankly, for me it’s now risen to the level of essential. 

Back when it all started, half a year ago, I actually found the sudden disappearance of social obligations a relief, a chance for my anti-social side to breathe a little as we sheltered in place. But like a sad baby lab chimp relegated to extracting love from a wire-frame mama, I need something more now. And dinner is the way to do it. 

See, if I’m cooking for you, it means you’re important to me. I realize it can be construed as a shortcoming that I’m more comfortable coating a filet mignon in cracked peppercorns and gorgonzola butter than telling you I love you, but at least it’s tasty.

As I point out the seeded crackers each with a dollop of herbed Chèvre, a thin disk of Persian cucumber and a few grains of finishing salt that I’ve set out for an appetizer, I take some comfort in knowing that, technically, we’re all on legal ground. 

Our county is currently locked in reopening limbo at the made-up level of 1.5. Sift through the state proclamations online and then hyperlink to the chart of county-by-county modifications and eventually you will get to this: 

“GATHERINGS: Allowed outdoors only, with 5 or fewer people outside your household per week.” 

Outside, beautiful summer evening — check. Us plus them add up to four — check. And since it’s a Sunday, I make a quick executive decision to officially start my “week” today, so we’re all good.

But those aren’t the only regulations to navigate. 

The next step is to gauge the caution level of your guests, the internal, personal rules by which we individually choose to abide. We already know hugging is out, but what about masks? And how strict are we going to be on the six-foot rule? You don’t want your invited guest backing away from you like a hissing cat as you attempt to pour the Malbec, now do you?

Our wives settle into deck chairs placed farther apart than normal as we men triangulate around the grill. 

I’m not being careful enough. I can sense it. My friend’s eyes track the action as I press a finger into a chicken breast roulade wrapped around sun-dried tomato, zucchini, smoked scamorza cheese and basil, testing it for doneness. I feel compelled to detail my recent care in hand-washing, to offer assurances that I’m clean. 

But I don’t really know, do I? I was out at the farmer’s market and the grocery stores gathering my supplies. But I don’t know where besides the soil those farmers have been putting their hands, or who might have fondled the scamorza before I decided to buy it. And I haven’t been tested. 

Now the real opportunities for transmission have begun. 

Who touched the wine bottle last? Let’s open a second one (honestly, that’s just a good idea anyway). It’s hard not to get handsy with the grilled corn as I try to slather on a scallion-lime butter. These plates aren’t going to move themselves to the table, either.

They cluster at one end of an eight-foot deck table, we at the other. It feels a little Downton Abbey. 

The topic of the virus comes up as we eat. How can it not? We talk about how to strike a reasonable balance between this hovering fear and living our lives, all while striving not to inadvertently cause the deaths of our fellow citizens.

Somebody floats the comforting thought that maybe the heat of the grill is enough to kill any lurking microorganisms. Maybe.* Or maybe we’ve just lucked out and this happens to be the day the virus has up and disappeared, as our president has predicted.** 

We arrive at a risk assessment approach. If we are taking reasonable daily precautions while maintaining an awareness of the localized spread of the disease, well then, we can play the odds from there. 

We try to put the topic to bed and toss a few bags of Cornhole to work off the East 62nd Street Lemon Cake and that calorie-laden scoop of lemon ice cream. 

But like the virus itself, the topic seems to pop up at every turn — kids not off at college, work not happening, friends and family unseen. Pick up your own Cornhole bag, will you? I’m not touching that.

At last we wave our goodbyes from afar under a night sky filled with virus-free stars. My wife sets to wiping down all the “knobs and bobs” with sanitizing wipes while I toss ashes and pack up the grill area. 

Even now, when no one can be sure if it’s just a hug or a mutual death pact, there is sustenance in a shared meal that feels necessary, that has the power to help us get through this and, with a little care and while the weather holds, can be conducted safely. 

Now, I’ve just got to figure out what to do come winter.


*Per the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 is inactivated at temperatures beginning at 133-149 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, the World Health Organization currently maintains there is no evidence that COVID-19 can be caught from food or food packaging.

** It wasn’t.

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