How to picnic in a pandemic, according to experts

From blankets to drinking straws, a simple checklist of outdoor supplies can help support safer gatherings amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Published July 21, 2020

Back in the day, a successful picnic required little more than your prizewinning potato salad and a few paper plates. In 2020, of course, summer gatherings look and feel a lot different due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic—and special safety precautions are in order, experts say.

First, some reassuring points for picnickers: Right now there’s no evidence to suggest that people can get sick with COVID-19 by eating or handling food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And small, socially distanced outdoor get-togethers are considered less risky in terms of transmission than large, indoor, or crowded gatherings.

That said, food-focused events of any kind do come with special considerations, says biologist Nellie Brown, director of Workplace Health and Safety Programs at Cornell University. 

Many people are unable to eat comfortably while wearing a protective fabric face covering, which makes social distancing at mealtimes paramount, she says. Anytime your nose and mouth are unmasked in a public setting, the CDC recommends maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from anyone who doesn’t live in your household. 

Another thing to keep in mind is that eating, for most people, brings hands close to the face. Touching a surface that’s been contaminated with respiratory secretions from a sick person and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes may increase your risk of getting sick. For this reason, plan to clean hands immediately before serving food and eating, Brown says. Use soap and water, or an alcohol-based sanitizer. As a general safety practice, do your best to limit contact with surfaces that other people handle or touch, she advises.

Read more: How to stop touching your face

With some simple protocols in place, a fun and healthy outdoor get-together is possible. “This isolation has been hard on everybody,” Brown says. “We’re social animals. We like to be with each other, and we miss each other.” Read on for a checklist of supplies that can help your group reconnect and gather more safely this season.

Seating sized for the occasion

Picnic tables at parks can be tricky for social distancing, as their depth measurement rarely reaches the requisite 6 feet. “If you had a really long [table] and you had a person at two opposite corners diagonally, you might manage,” Brown says, acknowledging that this would probably make for an awkward party. For socially distanced spacing that feels more natural, groups of four or fewer can sit and face inward from corners of an oversize blanket or mat. Meanwhile, larger groups may be better suited to small individual blankets or lightweight lawn chairs. The personal blanket shown above pops out into a fixed circle about 5 feet in diameter for quick, easy positioning. Once everyone is adequately spread out, the masks can come off, Brown says.

A super straw

If your group wants to close in for a celebratory toast, you can stay masked while sipping your drink. Just use a straw! Recyclable and biodegradable, individually wrapped paper straws are a popular option for picnics. Or, consider a reusable metal version for yourself. The one shown here collapses into a mini carrying case that attaches to a keychain, so you’ll always be ready to raise a glass—or aluminum can, as the case may be. 

Extra serveware

When folks from multiple households plan to meet up, it’s best for each group to pack their own serving gear such as tongs and shatterproof bowls (the melamine beauty shown above is available here), Brown says. This helps minimize cross-handling when portioning out family-style fare such as salads and chips. Stuck without extra serveware? Just take extra care. Pass around the hand sanitizer and have everyone apply liberally before circulating that platter of cold fried chicken.

Prebundled utensils

When it comes to forks and knives, you’re probably already used to not sharing. Good start. For extra insurance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown advises against displaying picnic cutlery in cups for guests to grab—all those fingers fumbling about could up the risk of transmission, she says. Instead, consider having a person in your group create bundles of disposable cutlery and napkins in advance. That way, no one at the picnic has to touch anyone else’s utensils. If reusable cutlery is more your jam, the lightweight bamboo set shown above comes with that soft carrying case for easy transport in a purse or knapsack.

Condiment packets

Now might be a good time to hit pause on saying, “Pass the ketchup.” Brown cautions that communal bottles of condiments can harbor viral traces just as other objects do. “I think we need to be thinking about [single-use] packets,” she says. This 80-count variety box includes minis of mustard, hot sauce, ketchup, and after-dinner mints you can scatter on a plate for easy picking. And since the products are shelf-stable, extras won’t take up room in your fridge between outdoor gatherings.


Rachelle Bergstein is a lifestyle writer, author, and editor. Her most recent book is Brilliance and Fire: A Biography of Diamonds.


This article was reviewed for accuracy in June 2021 by Christi Smith, MS, CSCS, associate manager for science translation at WeightWatchers®. The WeightWatchers Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.

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