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How to ask about COVID safety protocols before a party without making it awkward

December 16, 2022, 9:00 PM UTC
Smiling and laughing friends shooting party poppers during holiday party in home
Asking party guests about masking and testing can be uncomfortable.
Thomas Barwick—Getty Images

Get-togethers before the COVID years had their challenges, but they were more of the I wonder if that person who hogs the conversation is going to be there this year variety. Since COVID-19 entered our lives, party hosts also have to consider how careful invitees are about keeping COVID at bay.

In the early days of the pandemic, the world learned to Zoom parties, graduations, weddings, and so much more. It was challenging but the rules were clear: don’t breathe near each other. Then it was about masking and social distance or, whenever possible, getting together in the great outdoors. After that it wasn’t unusual for people to require testing before a party or insist that everybody wear masks.

“COVID has pushed us to have awkward conversations that we didn’t used to have about consent in other forms,” says San Francisco-based therapist Lily Sloane, “of checking in before hugging somebody, or asking people what their protocol is, or [negotiating] what hanging out in person might look like once we started doing some of that. So it kind of just forced a lot more straightforward, open communication, which, I think, is a good thing.”

Now? The rules and behavior have gotten muddled as some people grew exhausted by the pandemic and all the changes it forced on daily life: “We’re in this liminal space,” says Sloane. I think the social awkwardness of this period feels different because people who generally have agreed through most of this might be taking different paths now.”

Unless a person has health issues that makes possible COVID exposure more of an issue or is currently dealing with long COVID, there’s a fair chance that most people are changing up their approach depending on who else is around. Peer pressure often drives people’s decisions on whether or not to mask up.

“What I’m noticing in myself and other people is this, I think, fear around saying, I don’t really know what I’m doing and I’m a little bit all over the place. And I think actually that’s a lot of people right now,” says Sloane.

So what’s the average COVID-conscious person to do as holiday parties make a comeback this year? Amidst rising COVID cases in parts of the country, Sloane suggests ramping up communication and accepting that, at times, the conversation will be uncomfortable.

For (potential) party goers

If a party invite doesn’t include information on testing or masking, don’t just cross your fingers and hope to avoid COVID, RSV, flu or whatever else may be floating around these days. Communication is key here. Yes, you could always lie and say you’re planning to visit your elderly grandmother soon, or whatever thing you’re not planning to do that you want to lie and say you’re doing.

But there’s an easier way to broach the are you regularly testing and/or masking? conversation before accepting an invite to a holiday shindig (so you won’t get caught in a lie the next time you talk to the party host).

The trick to going the honest route: “Own the awkwardness,” says Sloane. Ask what you need to ask about masking or testing or, even, if the host knows if the other guests are also COVID-conscious. There’s nothing wrong in advocating for yourself and your own health. That it’s become awkward to admit that you don’t want to expose yourself to an illness that can really slam your life is weird. Really really weird.

Need a script? Here are a few questions to help make that call (or even better, email) a little easier.

“I understand everyone’s kind of in different places with this right now. But will guests have to test for covid before the party?”

“I know this might be annoying but I’m trying to be extra cautious right now.”

“Maybe I’m being overly cautious but can we please all wear masks? I really want to see everybody and it’s going to make it easier for me to attend.”

And if you get a hard and fast “no” in response? It’s not worth a fight. There’s a good chance other attendees feel the same way as the host and won’t want to mask or test either. Go have fun somewhere else. Or have your own COVID-conscious party at your place.

For party hosts

While there are some people out in the world who are just natural hosts, COVID-era hosting takes extra tact and thought. “Most people I know who host things would feel responsible to some degree if somebody got COVID from their party or event,” says Sloane. So, before sending out the invites or, even, planning the food, decide what level of testing or masking you’ll require of guests. Sloane suggests parameters that “defer to the most cautious person who wants to attend.”

When you send out the invites, don’t hedge. List your masking and testing requirements right on the invitation or, if you’re going informal and putting out word by phone, just state it all very clearly and move on to how excited you are to get people together. (“By the way, we’re asking everybody to take a covid test both the day before the party.”) Get pushback? A quick “I’m so sorry you won’t be able to make it this year. I look forward to seeing you in the new year.”

After the party

No matter how hard you work to be COVID safe, there’s no way to guarantee you won’t get sick. If you do go to a party and contract the virus, let the host know you ended up with COVID and that they should alert the other guests. If you’re the host, let your guests know they were potentially exposed to COVID. Just don’t blame the hosts or other guests. It’s a risk we all take when socializing these days.

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