Tips for picnics and parties during a pandemic

The summer picnic season has always been fraught with hazards from a food safety perspective, even without the added stress and fear of serving food amid a raging global pandemic. Cookouts, potlucks and warm outdoor temperatures provide untold opportunities to contract a food-borne illness, and now more than ever, it is in our best interest to do everything we can to avoid becoming ill.

By now, we are all aware that COVID-19 is a highly contagious respiratory virus. The good news for those of us who love our barbecues and takeout is that you are unlikely to contract it from eating contaminated food, according to Dr. Kemia Sarraf, a Springfield physician who focuses on public health issues. Unlike bacteria, which can multiply on surfaces and in food – given enough time and moisture under correct temperatures – COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that needs to find its way into a living host in order to replicate. If a person ingests food that has been sneezed on by someone who is positive for COVID-19, it is unlikely that the person eating the contaminated food will become sick, as it would be difficult for the virus to survive in the acidic environment of the stomach. The risk, therefore, comes from touching recently contaminated packaging and then rubbing your eyes or nose with your now-contaminated fingers. This is why frequent, rigorous handwashing and universal masking to prevent spread from asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infected individuals are the best tools.

The highest-risk environment for being exposed to this virus, Sarraf warned, is spending time in poorly ventilated spaces in proximity to other people for extended periods. "People need to understand that there is no 'safe' activity, there is only 'safer,' and everyone needs to individually assess their own level of risk moving forward," she said. "Right now, when we can be outdoors in the fresh air and the rate of community transmission has been relatively low, is likely as safe as it's going to get for a while."

However, Sarraf also noted that there has already been a "concerning uptick in community spread in central Illinois," and one of the major drivers has been transmission among gatherings of family and friends, particularly young people who may be less likely to abide by social distancing guidelines.

"As of July 25, 54% of the new cases in Sangamon County are the result of exposure at public gatherings," said Sarraf. "We know that when the weather turns cold and flu season hits it will be even harder to gather safely, so we need to enjoy summer wisely – still physically distanced and only in very small groups who understand the risk and are also behaving responsibly – as much as we can."

Gathering more safely, Sarraf advises, means using caution and keeping interactions outdoors where natural air flow patterns will disperse exhalations. Host get-togethers where there is ample space, and ensure your guests are able to wash or sanitize their hands frequently. Communicate expectations ahead of time, such as if you expect others to wear masks or refrain from hugging. And keep adhering to the same food safety advice that public health officials have been recommending for years. This is a particularly bad time to wind up sick with anything, be it coronavirus or a nasty stomach bug.

Wash your hands often. Make sure to have plenty of hand sanitizer available and consider creating an outdoor hand-washing station. Set up a water dispenser with a free-flowing spigot on the edge of a table with an empty bucket underneath the spigot to catch the dirty water. Make sure soap and paper towels are available, as well as a small waste can for used paper towels.

Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Cold food needs to be kept at 40 degrees or below to prevent dangerous bacteria from growing. Food-borne bacteria thrive in the temperature zone of 40 degrees to 140 degrees, so foods should only be allowed to sit out at room temperature for no more than two hours, or one hour if the ambient temperature is 90 degrees or above. Hot foods need to be cooked to 165 degrees and held at a temperature of 140 degrees or above for no more than four hours. It's wise to keep an inexpensive meat thermometer handy to easily check temperatures.

Organize the contents of your coolers. Keep raw meat well sealed on the bottom layer of the cooler, or ideally, pack it into a separate cooler from ready-to-eat items to prevent cross-contamination. If possible, pack beverages into their own cooler so that when people repeatedly open the cooler to retrieve a drink, perishable foods are not continually exposed to warmer air temperatures. Place frozen water bottles or gel packs in the bottom of your cooler, and then once the food is in, pack additional ice around it to ensure the contents are thoroughly chilled.

Do everything possible to prevent cross-contamination. Cutlery handles should be facing up in the caddy so that people don't touch the food end when taking one. Similarly, plates and cups should all be placed upside down on the serving table so that the food contact surface is not as exposed.

Keep a bottle of diluted bleach solution (one teaspoon regular bleach to one quart of room temperature water) handy to facilitate frequent wiping down of tables, handles of serving utensils, door handles or any other frequently touched surfaces.

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