TORONTO -- Limits on social gatherings are easing as provinces continue to relax COVID-19 restrictions, but that doesn't mean people can get together like they used to.

While some provinces may have larger gathering limits than others, having friends in the house even for a short time remains a bad idea. Getting together outside -- in someone’s backyard, front porch, on a deck or in a park -- is the new go-to.

With careful planning, proper hygiene measures and some creative design, experts say getting together with a limited number of friends and family members can safely be done.


Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of Queen's University's infectious diseases division in Kingston, Ont., told that for anyone looking to host people, doing it outside is key.

"We know that it's more difficult to transmit it in the outdoors because there's a lot of wind and there's a dilutional effect of the large amount of atmosphere," Evans said in a phone interview on Monday.

He added that the likelihood of transmitting the novel coronavirus while outside is "very, very low," but said guests should still evaluate their own health before attending any get-together.

"[It's] super important to make sure that everybody sort of self-checks themselves before they are going out to meet with others," Evans said. "If you're suffering from something that's bothering you, whether it be respiratory symptoms or perhaps a headache or a fever, then you should definitely keep yourself at home."

Gathering inside isn't entirely off the table in some provinces and territories, although Evans recommends guests don't stay too long.

"I would still discourage people from meeting inside at the moment, which can be easily done given that it's summer, but if you're going to be indoors then I'd think about restricting that to no more than about an hour at most," Evans said. He added that this is because the risk of transmission does increase over time, even with physical distancing measures in place.

Colin Furness, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's faculty of information and Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said he understands that people are eager to start visiting each other, but cautioned that everyone should assess the risk level before doing so.

"It depends on where you are and it depends on how much community spread is happening in your area," Furness told during a telephone interview on Monday. "If [the cases] are all known and associated with a long-term care home or some other kind of super-spreading event then you know what's going on. It's when you don't know that the risk is high."


Furness said it is important for Canadians to stick to the gathering size limits outlined by public health officials and to set out physical distancing guidelines before guests arrive.

"It's really easy when you're seeing people you haven't seen in a long time to forget social distancing. It's out of your mind, and then all of a sudden you realize that you're too close," Furness said.

Whether guests are sitting in chairs on a deck or on blankets in a yard, Furness said people should be far enough apart that a conversation should feel slightly awkward.

"You should have to speak just a little louder than you otherwise normally would. If it feels a bit awkward that's probably the right distance, and if it doesn't feel a bit awkward then maybe you're too close," Furness said. He also recommends using tape or chalk to mark the distance between people.

Evans said everyone may not have the same notions about what it means to be physically distant and suggests setting out the seating arrangement ahead of time to ensure there is an appropriate amount of space between guests.

"If you wait until everybody comes and the chairs are all gathered around the table, then people are going to be reluctant to move them, so moving them before your guests actually arrive and making sure they're far a part is a good idea," Evans said.

Lisa Orr, a Toronto-based etiquette expert, told that gathering limits may make it difficult for a host to decide who to invite. However, hosts can get creative in how to incorporate all of their friends and family.

"I've seen situations where people have invited some people in-person and some people virtually with the intent... that they broadcast between the two groups, so that it makes it more like a big group who are in person together, except we're still abiding by the rules around how many people are allowed," Orr said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Orr recommends incorporating various video chats, phone calls and texting to help friends and family connect without all being in the same space.

"Having people who are in person, connecting with people who are virtually is a really fun way to have conversations with lots of people, especially if you've broken up the chat lines with different people so you can kind of have those sidebar conversations you might have in person anyways," Orr said.


To ensure the safety of everyone, Orr said hosts should ask guests to bring their own supplies including cutlery, glassware, food and drinks.

"Most public health guidance says we're not supposed to be sharing things because that's how the virus spreads. So a host who is serious will encourage guests to be as safe as possible that's going to mean bringing your own things," Orr said.

While Evans said guests can bring their own dishware, he said doing so might be "a bit excessive." However, he said guests should ensure that they are not sharing dishes.

"You should use your own plate, your own cutlery, your own drinking glasses and everything and not share it with other people. Afterwards, the person who's hosting just simply ensures that all of that is washed, and that's what we've always done anyways," Evans said.

Having guests bring their own dishes may “cause more confusion than safety,” Furness added.

"If you have to keep track of where's your fork and knife, I don't think that actually makes people safer … It might be make sense to use masking tape to put people's names on glasses because you can pick up the wrong one, but I don't think people bring their own stuff is needed," Furness said.

Furness said the risk for sharing food is low but said still advises against it. Sharing drinks is also off the table, he said.

"No one is going to be leaving that much virus behind on a chip that they inadvertently touched in a bowl. But because COVID is not the only thing you can catch from other people, it's probably better, generally, to consistently keep food separate," Furness said.

While he also advises that food and drinks should not be shared, Evans said hosts can still put out snacks at a gathering if they're in single portions.

"Instead of having it like a buffet where everybody goes and grabs their own plate, everybody is probably better served in the moment with being given a portion of all the food that they might want to have," Evans said. "Instead of having a big bowl, you should set up small, individual bowls that already have the chips in them."

Evans said this ensures that everyone has their own bowl and nobody is mixing their snack with somebody else's.


Having guests go into one’s home to use the bathroom is not something to stress about, according to Evans. He said it is "absolutely safe" for people to share a toilet.

However, he suggests doing away with hand towels that can harbour bacteria.

"Instead of having a common hand towel that everyone is using, put out individual towelettes so that everyone uses their own personal piece of paper towel to dry their hands after they've washed them," Evans said.

Evans added that the host should clean and disinfect the bathroom before guests arrive and after they leave.

Guests should treat using someone else’s washroom like using a public bathroom, Furness said.

"If you're using the bathroom, be mindful of what you touch and just like anytime you use the bathroom, wash your hands thoroughly afterwards," Furness said. "The biggest risk of using a bathroom is the door handle on your way out, so use a tissue to open the door."

He added that a host can leave out disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer to make guests feel more comfortable.

Orr recommends addressing the bathroom situation before guests arrive as it may be a deciding factor in whether they attend.

"Make it all super clear in the invitation, put all the weird stuff up front so you don't have to explain it when people get there and that way everyone’s worries are sort of eased," she said.


Orr says it is important for a host to be mindful that their guests may have different feelings about get-togethers right now. She said there is nothing wrong with choosing not to attend a gathering amid the pandemic.

"Like with any event, if you're not comfortable it's totally appropriate to decline and you don't need to give an excuse. If it's someone close to you that you'd feel would be really hurt by you not attending, you could politely let them know that the comfort level is just not there," Orr said.

If a host lays out the rules of the gathering before anyone arrives, Orr said guests should not have a problem following them.

"As the host, if you've already told people what to expect and the guests have already agreed to it. It's sort of like wearing a seatbelt in the car. These are the rules to keep people safe, and it's disrespectful not to follow them," Orr said. She said alcohol may play a factor in how well rules are followed.

"When people are drinking they have a tendency to get overly social and they may start to disrespect physical distancing," Orr said, adding that hosts should limit the amount of alcohol they provide.

Since it is the host’s responsibility to ensure the safety of everyone, Orr said part of that responsibility is pulling aside guests who are not following physical distancing measures.

"You're hosting because people need that social connection, the last thing you'd want to have happen is for someone who's asymptomatic to get everybody sick," Orr said. "So know what your rules are and communicate really clearly with your guests what your expectations are."

Orr recommends that a host put out signs to remind guests to keep their distance and to maintain good hygiene.

"You can leave little tips for your friends and you can make it funny… The fact that we're even allowed to spend some time with our friends socially and our family socially, I think we sort of have to take what we can get," said Orr.

"Even if you had to do it a little differently, it's pretty nice to be able to do it."