Entertaining during a pandemic

Surge or no, some say the party will go on.
Candis Harris was one of nine guests on a mid-July boat ride on Lake Lanier. Party organizer Daniele Mays said guests were asked to wear masks during the gathering, even though it was outside. Mays, an event planner, said COVID-19 rules have drastically changed the way she operates her business.

Credit: @highdefinition_boating

Combined ShapeCaption
Candis Harris was one of nine guests on a mid-July boat ride on Lake Lanier. Party organizer Daniele Mays said guests were asked to wear masks during the gathering, even though it was outside. Mays, an event planner, said COVID-19 rules have drastically changed the way she operates her business.

Credit: @highdefinition_boating

I really didn’t need three punch bowls.

Not the square one that reminded me of a 1940s, rhinestone brooch. Not the one round as a globe with starbursts etched on its glass so thin that every time I plunged the matching ladle into its belly for a scoop of punch, I worried the whole thing might shatter. And I certainly didn’t need the footed silver-plated basin big enough for a baby’s bath.

Even years ago, when I catered a little on the side and regularly threw huge parties, I didn’t need three. Looking at them recently, in the eerie light of the pandemic, I calculated how long it would take to remove tarnish from the silver-plate behemoth. Then the question bubbled up that I’d beaten down since lockdowns began: Will I ever need any of that stuff again? Will I ever entertain again on that scale and in a communal way?

Platters still cushioned in bubble wrap from a recent move, ring the floor of the dining room. What’s the point of unwrapping them since buffet-style serving probably won’t make a comeback until there’s a vaccine? And what about the chaffing dishes? Do they even still sell Sterno?

So, I wondered, how do people who plan parties for a living handle entertaining now? How do they counsel clients? How do they entertain in their own homes with others? I spoke with three families, two based here in Atlanta and one who used to work in New York but has sheltered with family here since early in the outbreak. I also talked with a couple of psychologists about our need for human connection and how that factors into our willingness to risk illness in order to attend a baby shower or have a glass of wine with a friend in their driveway.

Credit: Tiffany Guthrie

Credit: Tiffany Guthrie

Not scared but careful

Tiffany Guthrie was supposed to be in Las Vegas on Saturday, July 25, getting a bride and her attendants ready for the bride’s destination wedding.

The venue was going to be classic Vegas; Chapel in The Clouds, high atop the Strat Hotel, Casino and Skypod overlooking the Las Vegas Valley. The colors for the wedding were supposed to be navy, burgundy and gold. The maid of honor was to carry not a bouquet of real flowers, but a cluster of blinged-out, sparkling brooches. The glittering, neon Strip in the distance below presented the perfect backdrop for post-ceremony photos.

As the wedding day grew closer, the Atlanta bride was heartened when Las Vegas reopened its hotels and casinos and assured visitors that despite the novel coronavirus, businesses along the Strip would do all they could to keep people safe. But as the event planner, Guthrie, who owns TMG Events in Atlanta, knew her new duties now included managing client expectations in the age of COVID-19.

“I had to be careful with the words I chose to say to her, so I asked questions,” Guthrie said. “‘What do you want your wedding to look like? Do you want your guests walking around with masks on? Do you want guests to worry about getting sick?‘”

Ultimately, the bride decided to postpone her wedding until June 2021, after Guthrie suggested she survey guests about their willingness to travel. Of the 55 guests, “70% said, no, I can’t risk it,‘” Guthrie said. “Our first concern is safety.”

Most of her events have been postponed or scaled back to accommodate a handful of guests, she said. Then she told me about a baby shower she recently did for a couple at an event center in Stockbridge. The colors were navy, light blue and taupe. It was indoors, for 38 people, seated six to eight at a table. There was a D.J., a bartender, a photo booth and caterers who served guests. Hand sanitizer was available. Masks were encouraged.

I asked Guthrie what she was thinking, every bit of that event, as she relayed it, seemed to fly in the face what we know about the virus and how it’s transmitted according to scientists: Outdoors is better than indoors. Gatherings of people not in the same household should be avoided. Guthrie said she wasn’t scared but cautious. She felt the venue had clearly-stated COVID-prevention protocols. She wore a mask and gloves to set up the event, but she didn’t stay for the festivities. She returned later to breakdown the decorations and wiped down her props with cleansing disposable clothes before putting them in her car.

“To my knowledge, no one has come back positive from attending the event,” Guthrie said.

She told me she’d do another indoor event for a client if she was assured the venue followed CDC guidelines. She also told me she was pregnant with her and her husband’s third child.

“Life must go on. We still have to celebrate. We still have to live.”

Credit: @highdefinition_boating

Credit: @highdefinition_boating

Processing Risk

Since the start of the pandemic there have been so many mixed messages. Don’t wear a mask. Wear a mask. Don’t gather in groups larger than 50, then 25, then 10, then just stay home. A city gives one directive on stay-at-home orders, but the state gives another. All those changes factor into the way people process risk, said Jordan Cattie, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University. Even the phrase “social distancing,” has affected people’s discernment on what is safe and what’s not.

“When they said, ‘social distancing’ rather than ‘physical distancing,’ many people reduced their social connectedness to unsustainable levels,” Cattie said. “Relationships are critical to emotional well being and positive mood. Physical connectedness is a need, not a want. It remains real even during a surge.”

When messages are mixed — especially from one level of government to the next — and public health guidelines change, people can be tempted to be more dismissive and return to familiar behaviors.

“Uncertainty is one of the more anxiety-producing states there is, and people go to great lengths to reduce uncertainty,” Cattie said.

Like going to an indoor baby shower, as they might have in 2019.

Or, you pivot.

Daniele Mays, does event planning for Warner Media in New York, and she runs her own party business, XOXO by Dani. For corporate clients, talks have turned to how to have events outside while the weather is still warm, but as awards and festival season approaches, how do events convert into in-home experiences that don’t involve mixing households? There are no easy solutions, Mays said. In August, there will be a drive-in movie night in Sandy Springs for Warner clients, to keep them engaged.

“We’re trying to be creative,” Mays said.

That extends to her private life since she has been staying with family in Atlanta during much of the pandemic. For July 4th weekend, she planned an outdoor birthday party for her brother in a green space in downtown Lawrenceville.She decorated the grounds with wooden crates and vases of flowers for a rustic theme. Guests brought their own chairs or blankets stayed apart and played group games like “For the Culture” on their phones. People in surrounding neighborhoods lit fireworks as night fell.

“At the end of the night, people said, ‘Thank you so much for doing this because we really needed to be with other people,’” Mays said.

Another friend now gives rides on his boat around Lake Lanier to people in their social circle. When Mays went with a group of eight earlier this month, they got dressed up, masks included.

“I’ve learned a sense of urgency, of celebrating people while they’re here and doing what you can, how you can,” Mays said. “We can still celebrate outdoors and be safe.”

Dr. Jessi Gold, is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis. She said people were tolerant of change for a short time but now have come to realize that their behaviors may have to be modified for the long haul.

“People didn’t understand that flattening the curve meant extending the curve, not the curve going away,” Gold said. “But as it has become clear that the virus is hard to fight and pretty contagious, the weight of risks has changed as this goes on…what is a new normal that’s acceptable to people?”

Credit: @highdefinition_boating

Credit: @highdefinition_boating

On the Same Page

What’s acceptable to Jennifer Witherington, owner of a Party Made Perfect in Marietta, is that all guests have their eyes wide open to the fact that the pandemic is not only ongoing but surging. Her business puts her at some remove from going onsite for events. As a party stylist, she makes party boxes with favors, serveware, decorations and for clients across the country. She’s gone from making boxes for parties of 65 to gatherings for six or eight.. But, she says, her business has picked up since March as people continued to mark life milestones even if they were on lockdown. But, cloth napkins have been switched out for paper. Plastic silverware has replaced metal.

Some clients have asked her how to safely have a gathering, an indication that even now, public health messaging and protocols have not sunken into a point that safe practices have become second nature. Witherington tells them that she’s not a doctor but on one point they should not waiver; everyone invited to a gathering must be on the same page in terms of safe pandemic behaviors.

“If you feel comfortable having yourtightknit group of five or six over, it makes me think, ‘and why wouldn’t that be OK?’ But that doesn’t mean the five people bring a plus one,” Witherington said.

She said that while she herself might have an outdoor gathering with four or five people, she’d never do something indoors and certainly not inside her house since she has two young kids.

“Our house is our safe haven, and I’d like to keep it that way,” Witherington said.

Credit: Jennifer Witherington

Credit: Jennifer Witherington

I can’t imagine when I’ll have a party inside our house again. Still, there are those punch bowls. Depending on the day I look at them they make me sad, despairing what our social lives have come to. Or they give me hope that one day in the not too distant future, I can mix up a batch, or three, of Jack Daniel’s punch.

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