How to have friends over this summer — safely

Make your outdoor space your new living room with these expert tips.
Use the grill, but ask guests to bring their own utensils and sides — and offer a separate table for visitors.
Use the grill, but ask guests to bring their own utensils and sides — and offer a separate table for visitors.Getty Images

It’s summer in the time of COVID, and outside is the new living room. With outdoors the less risky option when it comes to entertaining at home, a lot of us are looking out our back door with a fresh eye.

But where do you start when you think about refreshing your space for summer — while ensuring it’s as safe as possible? It takes an an infectious disease expert and an interior designer to guide this conversation.

Paul E. Turner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University and microbiology faculty at Yale School of Medicine, and Jessica Shaw, interior design director of Turett Collaborative, shared their guidance with TODAY.

If you're going to socialize, do it outdoors

Why is being outside so crucial? The virus is diluted outdoors so even if someone is shedding the virus, Turner explained, the wind will scatter it, allowing your immune system to tackle the much smaller quantity of virus it may encounter. “That risk is just so much lower outdoors,” he said. “It's not zero, but it's much lower.”

The safest bet is to ask your guests to BYO — and keep drinks and sides in separate coolers. TODAY illustration

Stick to the 6-feet rule

Just being outside isn’t enough. Because it’s such an infectious virus, “social distancing is still very key,” Turner said. “I consider it a minor inconvenience that if I'm going to see friends, then I'm also going to want to not share food, utensils and beverages, and I want to constantly try to have everybody keep their hands clean, and maintain social distance of six feet or more apart from one another, aside from those who live with you in your home. ...Yes, what we crave is a more normal existence but we are not there yet. And the big goal here is to not get sick.”

It's also important to follow the Centers for Disease Control guidance and wear a mask as often as possible.

Share a grill, but ask your guests to BYOB

“I'm a huge fan of grilling, I love to barbecue,” Turner said. “I'm very much in favor of socializing as long as you can do it prudently.” That means BYOB drinks and sides, he said, ideally with a separate table for visitors. “It is possible to share a grill with people,” he said, because coming from a high heat environment where the virus can’t thrive, that food will be sterile. Just don’t share utensils. (We have taken to marking ours with colored tape when we visit friends!)

The "bring your own" theme extends to silverware and grilling utensils.TODAY illustration

Prep the bathroom

Where there is food and drink, there is of course the million dollar question: What about the bathroom? “Yes, basic bodily functions are going to always be necessary,” Turner said. So, “you clear a path, so that there are no high touch objects handled on the way to and from and within the bathroom itself. You can have some paper towels so that people can turn the faucet on and off, open the door, close the door with these disposable items, and that's going to reduce the possibility of a high touch object like a doorknob being a source of infection.” That said, “we need to be more worried about being in the presence of somebody who is sick,” who may not know it, he added. “That's really the primary way that the virus seems to be moving from person to person.”

Make paper towels available for guests to safely handle high-touch items like doors and faucets. TODAY illustrations

How to design your outdoor space for a socially distanced summer

Since there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to the wide variety of outdoor spaces, when you’re looking at preparing your space for a socially distanced summer, start with identifying your priorities, Shaw said.

1. Figure out what's important to you

Do you want to cook, garden or just host drinks and conversation with friends? Identify your “scope of work” based on those priorities, Shaw said, and if you can’t do them all, choose the most important. For us it was adding a firepit in order to have a focal point — and natural barrier — for a seating area where we can have cocktails with friends.

2. Do your research

Now, hit the internet. Comb Pinterest and Instagram with specific searches; “courtyard with black fence ideas” helps narrow down a search a lot more than a generic “backyard ideas” search, and let the results lead you down the rabbit hole of inspiration.

Yes, what we crave is a more normal existence but we are not there yet. And the big goal here is to not get sick.

Paul E. Turner, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University

3. Sketch it out on paper

Once you have some ideas, you’ll want to sit down with pencil and paper, Shaw said. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be an artist here. “Just do a little sketch of your space,” she said, “and create bubble diagrams.” Just draw rough circles or shapes to show where you might put a grill or dining table, for example, or garden or fire pit. The idea is to lay things out and try it again and again, she said. “The first one is very likely not going to be the right one, but it's a way to take your thoughts and put them onto paper so they can start to become reality.”

A fire pit makes a nice focal point — and an easy to way to create a natural barrier for social distancing. TODAY illustration

Especially if you’re limited on space, when it comes to seating and furniture, look for flexible, multifunctional options that are easy to move, Shaw said. So think double duty for dining seats that can also serve as comfortable lounge chairs that let you go from family meals to backyard socially-distanced soirees. For tables, look for versatile pieces that can serve as outdoor desk, dining table, or side table.

4. Consider shade

If you’ve moved your seating apart, there may be newly exposed areas. While there are “oodles” of interesting umbrellas in a variety of shapes and sizes, Shaw said, an option she likes is a pergola. This open frame with beams across the top can serve as a structure for plants to grow along, or you can hang a sail shade and fairy lights for even more atmosphere. Big box stores and online retailers sell kits, or the handy and industrious among us may even tackle the project as a DIY. Stringing a sail cloth can be a relatively inexpensive option as well.

At the end of the day though, we’re all just so grateful to see each other that what it looks like isn’t the most important thing. Staying safe, and being together is what counts. Nobody really cares if your cushions have seen better days, or if you have to set up a fan in the yard because you lack shade.