When COVID put an abrupt halt to social gatherings, many homes were reconfigured to encompass school study areas and home offices. Now that pandemic restrictions are easing, there is a gentle art to opening your home again to guests who (like hosts) are out of practice and grappling with a somewhat changed social terrain.
Hugs and handshakes? Dining tables or backyards?
Because the pandemic isn't over and comfort levels vary, etiquette and homes experts agree that communication, flexibility and compassion are key to making sure things go smoothly.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
“While some people have jumped right back to hugs and handshakes, others aren’t quite there yet so it’s very important to ask people about things first, and respect differing comfort levels,” says Lizzie Post, co-president of The Emily Post Institute and great great-granddaughter of etiquette maven Emily Post.
“Ask ‘Is a hug OK?’ If it’s not, express that friendliness and enthusiasm with words,” she says.
“It’s important to be understanding and keep in mind that people are coming together to connect and to celebrate,” adds Krissy Tiglias, executive editor of Southern Living.
Touch base with guests before the gathering. "Let them know how many people there will be and where you’ll be gathering. People are returning to social gatherings at different paces, and that allows guests to prepare accordingly,” she says.
Amy Panos, home editor for Better Homes and Gardens, adds: “Don’t hesitate to get specific, like ‘everyone who’s invited is vaccinated so no need for masks,’ or, ‘we have unvaccinated kids, so let’s mask up when possible.’"
LESS IS MORE
Where guest lists are concerned, the pros agree it’s a good idea to start small as you figure things out.
“Consider a smaller guest list to begin with, in the first few forays to test the waters, then tweak your approach as you go along,” Panos suggests.
Says Lizzie Post: “A lot of people are experiencing fatigue a little faster than before. A couple hours out is often as much as people are ready for at the start. People should be able to let a host know ahead of time if they think they may want to make it an early evening. And hosts should try to be flexible and understanding.
“It’s a time to be compassionate and understanding, and not to take things too personally.”
ALLOW FOR SPACE, OUTDOOR ACCESS
“For overnight guests, think of making space for a comfortable chair or a little desk in the guest room. Make it into a kind of mini hotel room so they have a place to rest and recharge. Many of us are taking longer trips, and will be needing to get some work done while we’re there,” says Panos.
And instead of piling onto the couch or squeezing around a dining table, as people did before the pandemic, these days people tend to be more comfortable if they’re able to spread out.
“This may be the time to invest in stackable stools or chairs to keep handy so people can spread out comfortably, and keep the windows open if you can,” Panos says.
As Martha Stewart Living style director Tanya Graff says, “We have become pros at doing everything outside. If you can entertain as much as possible outside, I would continue to do that.”
TIDY UP — EVEN WITH RECONFIGURED HOMES
While it’s not necessary to dismantle pandemic-configured home offices, you’ll want to tidy things up, especially in areas where you’ll be entertaining.
“Any time you’ll be inviting people over, make sure you have a nice, clean, available space. If your living room is also an office, office things should be cleared away. Get the space ready for guests,” says Post.
Says Tiglias: “I think we’ve all been cleaning more, but a deep clean of highly trafficked areas is a good idea. Walk through where guests will be, and make sure everything is clean and organized.”
REMEMBER THE KIDS
“Remember that those under 12 still haven’t been able to get vaccinated,” Graff says.
She suggests setting up a separate kids’ table, and being outdoors as much as possible.
EMBRACE INDIVIDUAL PORTIONS, SKIP THE DIP
“Make sure everything has serving utensils and no one has to use their hands with things,” Graff says. “Individual desserts like ice cream sandwiches or individual fruit cobblers are great.”
Tiglias, of Southern Living, says setups that allow guests to serve themselves, like a “make your own strawberry shortcake” station or a “Bloody Mary bar,” are also popular now.
“When it comes to hosting, especially for the first one or two gatherings, take a step back and go with what you know will be a hit,” she says.
Margaret Mayfield, of Los Osos, California, recently gathered with extended family around the table, outdoors, for the first time in a long time.
“My husband has a large family that thrives on family get-togethers with great food and even better wine, but once the pandemic hit we agreed it was best to hold off until we were all fully vaccinated,” she says. “As soon as we were, it was time to celebrate!”