Perhaps more than ever, family reunions and summer picnics hold new meaning as Pennsylvania cautiously opens up after coronavirus shutdowns. But stop before hugging Aunt Edith or sharing a serving spoon with Cousin Ken — you don’t want to invite COVID-19 into those transactions.

Local doctors shared some tips for enjoying picnics and summer gatherings while keeping the virus at bay.

Masks required?

The cloth mask has become a hot button issue, touted as a means of mitigating the spread of potentially infected respiratory droplets and derided as an affront to personal freedom … is it needed at summer gatherings?

“Hot button or not, we KNOW that the single biggest, most effective thing we can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask,” said Dr. Stanley Martin, director of Infectious Diseases at Geisinger. “Nobody has waved the magic wand to make this virus go away. As we become more active and normal, this is the time when it becomes even more important that we think of these preventive measures, and the mask definitely is the most effective thing we can do in public.”

Wearing a mask protects the people around us, and ultimately protects all of us by limiting the spread of the virus.

“Be especially more careful if you have someone immune-compromised in your group,” said Rutul Dalal, MD, medical director of Infectious Diseases at UPMC in the Susquehanna region. “I think you should wear a mask to protect yourself or a family member.”

“The practices of masking, washing hands regularly and thoroughly, and social distancing from others outside of immediate family are simple-to-follow, strong measures that help in the prevention of COVID-19,” said Tamara Persing, RN, BSN, MS, CIC, FAPIC, vice president of Patient Care Services and chief nursing officer at Evangelical Community Hospital.

Embrace the distance

Especially at family reunions, a warm hug is as expected as the potluck casseroles and a game of horseshoes, but maybe this year should be different.

“Obviously, close physical contact is the highest risk scenario, but there’s also a time factor that goes into that risk,” Martin said. “Quick, transient contact like a hug is a lower risk in general unless the person is symptomatic, but it’s certainly not a zero risk.”

Trying to avoid close, bodily contact with people outside of our immediate family would be the wise thing to do, Dalal said.

“There are other modes of greeting. The fist bump, the elbow bump,” he said. “If you do have to hug somebody, definitely wear a mask because the close proximity can be an issue. You don’t want to fear that you’ve transmitted the virus to someone.”

“Just because the weather is nice, and people seem to be out and about more, does not mean they can stop being vigilant in good prevention habits,” Persing said. “Every interaction outside of your immediate family unit runs a risk of contributing to the continued spread of COVID-19.”

Hands off the serving spoon

That no-room-to-spare table of hot pots, covered dishes and salads can create a hotbed of virus germs on the serving spoons touched by each guest. For at least this one year, we might have to make changes.

“Bring your own mask, bring your own spoon,” Martin said with a laugh but added seriously that each person should use their own cups, plates, cutlery and even serving spoon to minimize the spread of germs. “That and hand sanitizer before and after the touching of the food and eating.”

“If you can, prepackage food into different boxes for different people,” Dalal said. “Or designate people in the group who are asymptomatic, who are going to be masked, and who are going to wear gloves to serve people.”

He also suggested a staggered approach so the entire group doesn’t have to pass through the buffet line at the same time.

Persing suggested considering doing away with the serving line altogether.

“Bring your own food and drinks,” she said. “Avoid potluck or serve-yourself-buffet-style food where utensils are handled often by many different people. Consider using disposable items like plates and utensils, and throw away your own trash.”

Regardless of how the food is served, wash hands before eating.

“If the host has not provided a hand-cleaning station, bring your own hand sanitizer,” Persing said.

In or out?

Experts agree outside gatherings are safer than inside because they allow for more social distancing and fresh air. We can help that advantage by being mindful of hand hygiene, masking and distancing.

“Keep gatherings small,” Persing said. “Each household is a quarantine-unit, and the more households put together raise the risk of infection.”

If outdoors, don’t forget to use sunscreen and insect repellent along with the hand sanitizer — we still have to guard against skin cancer and things like Lyme disease and bee allergies.

“Yes, it is safe for all three of them to be used together,” Dalal said. He added that people should make sure hand sanitizer, which can be flammable, is dry before doing things like cooking on an open flame or lighting a cigarette.

Whether inside or out, Persing emphasized the most obvious safety measure: Stay home if you’re feeling sick.

With simple tweaks to our normal customs, we can enjoy summer gatherings and still keep COVID-19 from infecting the people we love.

“This is the time when we need the most diligence and to be the most thoughtful,” said Stanley Martin. “We are still a long way away from conquering this virus.”

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Send e-mail comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com.

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