Bowing out of larger gatherings is the best course of action. Here's how to do so respectfully.
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woman cutting turkey on christmas
Credit: Getty / Klaus Vedfelt

Though it's difficult to predict the exact social distancing guidelines different states will have in place at the end of the year, most of the country can expect a holiday season that feels very different from those past. "COVID-19 does not take a holiday," explains Neysa Ernst, RN, the nurse manager at a biocontainment unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As invitations to open houses, cocktail hours, and extended-family celebrations start appearing, prepare your RSVP with this primer on essential pre-party etiquette.

Ask the right questions.

Whether you're responding to a Thanksgiving dinner invitation from your aunt or your neighbor's intimate New Year's Eve party, first clarify the plans for masking and social distancing and confirm the number of invited guests. "It is good to have a basic understanding of who is on the guest list," says Jodi RR Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. "Are these people who have high-risk exposure, such as ER staff? Are these people who may be more likely to have a negative outcome, such as 90-year-old grandparents?"

Other important questions include whether the party will be held indoors or out; how long you should plan to stay; and how the food will be served. "Most of our employee outbreaks have been contact traced to social gatherings where masking and social distancing were relaxed and food was served buffet style," says Ernst. If your host asks you to contribute to the meal, confirm their preference for homemade or store-bought treats, says Maryanne Parker of Manor of Manners; she also suggests asking whether the host will be checking temperatures or symptoms at the door. "Some parties are stricter than others and everyone has the right to feel how they choose, but we have the right to ask a few questions before attending," says Parker. "Some people feel more comfortable when a few extra measures are potentially in place."

Be polite.

Screening your host's safety procedures before accepting or declining an invitation may feel awkward, but using a friendly tone and polite wording allows you stay well within the boundaries of good etiquette. "Most of the time, we will be able to ask the questions over the phone or on Zoom," says Parker. "If people do not see us, obviously we will put our emphasis on our tone of voice, which should be soft, elegant, and polite. Never offensive, condescending, and rude! We all know that it's not what we say, but how we say it that is truly important." Start the conversation by thanking the host for their invitation, followed by an opening line like, "'This year has been a bit crazed and it is wonderful to be able to think about a festive gathering. I have a few questions for you,'" suggests Smith. "The host has extended a kindness, so no need to grill them with the third degree. Be sure to keep the tone light and conversational."

Say no if you need (or want) to.

Ernst says that you should definitely decline an invitation "if you develop a cough, fever, or if you suddenly don't feel well,"—even if it's the day of the event—or "if you have concerns that other attendees won't follow masking, social distancing, or communal food guidelines." Bow out with a simple, vague response like, "I'm sorry we won't be able to make it," or add a note that you're declining large parties for health reasons, says Parker; don't shift the conversation toward an argument about whether the party should happen at all. "I personally think we will hurt the host tremendously if we say something such as, 'I disagree with your ways of hosting a party! I think the fact that you are inviting so many people is truly against the healthy way to do things in 2020! And that's why I am not coming!'" says Parker.

Smith agrees: "No need to turn your RSVP into any sort of dissertation," she says. "If someone is within your tightest inner circle, you may add some self-deprecating humor. But if you don't want to attend at all, don't. Do send a gesture of your affection: flowers for the table, gourmet baked goods. Our goal is to make it through to a post-pandemic world where we can all celebrate together again. With a lot of science and a little luck, next year will be an entirely different story."

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