In March, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews singled out a Melbourne dinner party as the source of a cluster outbreak of COVID-19. "As best we can tell the dinner party started with one person who had the coronavirus. By the end of the dinner party almost everybody at the dinner party had the coronavirus," he said at the time.
During the nationwide lockdown, the dinner party posed a serious risk to public health and safety. Victoria is still weathering the strictest lockdown conditions in Australia, but across the border, New South Wales residents are permitted to have up to 20 visitors in their home. The same visitor limit applies in Tasmania. In Queensland, gatherings are restricted to a maximum of 10 people.
In South Australia, up to 50 people are allowed to gather at private residences; in Northern Territory, up to 100 people are allowed in a home. There are no visitor limits in place in the Australian Capital Territory (though residents are advised to maintain physical distancing of 1.5 metres) and Western Australia.
Provided they adhere to their state government restrictions. Australians are becoming emboldened to send out those at-home dinner invitations once again.
The pre-COVID dinner party concerns remain: what should I cook? What should I pour? Will everyone get along? But another, more critical question has entered the fold: how can I ensure everyone is safe?
It's all about taking a sensible, measured approach to hygiene, says Dr Holly Seale, senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of New South Wales. "We can think about what is low hanging fruit here? What are the easier and realistic things to suggest?" Ensuring 1.5 metres of space between guests, for example, could be difficult if you have a small apartment or dining table. And while the clinking of wine glasses has the potential to transmit the virus, the risk is considerably lower than, say, hugging guests upon arrival.
"We've got to continue to promote the best intentions of reducing transmission that will also be acceptable to members of the public," says Dr Seale. "It's a fine line, it's an ever-evolving space and we'll just have to keep seeing what we can do, but everybody is doing this as a team." Hugs are out, but dinner parties are in, provided hosts and guests follow these simple guidelines.
1. Practise good hand and respiratory hygiene
Bu now, we're all drilled in the art of the thorough hand-wash and this should continue when guests enter your home. Hosts should ensure there's enough hand-sanitiser or soap for guests, and everyone around the dinner table should practise respiratory etiquette (sneezing or coughing into a tissue or elbow, immediately disposing of the tissue in a bin, washing your hands afterwards). "People have been good about complying with these basic hygiene practices, and it's just being mindful about keeping those things ongoing," says Dr Seale.
2. Reconsider shared plates
The "put it on the table and let guests help themselves" model of modern dinner parties might need a rethink. Studies suggest that coronavirus pathogens can survive for a few hours or up to several days on surfaces, and Dr Seale says those humble tongs may need to rest in the kitchen drawer for now. "We may need to move away from shared salads and vegetables, to the host instead serving out all of the meal within the kitchen and giving each person their own separate plate of food," she says.
3. Most importantly, if you’re unwell, stay home
The national health advice is that those who are showing even flu-like symptoms – a runny nose, a sore throat – shouldn't venture out (except to get tested for the virus). If you're tempted to bond with your friends over a roast chook, while still harbouring a mild sniffle, the message is simple: don't. "It isn't easy to turn down those dinner party offers especially when we have been in a period where we haven't been able to have contact with people and friends," says Dr Seale. "A dinner offer right now sounds fantastic, but we don't suddenly want to rush out and put others at risk." This applies to hosts too – if you or a member of your household is feeling unwell, it's best to raincheck.
If your health is in order but you're still really concerned about the possible health implications of your soiree, Dr Seale says it might be worth indulging in that post-lockdown pleasure: eating out. "If people are overly worried, then maybe the suggestion would be to support a local restaurant who's doing it really tough."
This story was originally published on 5 June, 2020. It was updated on 10 September, 2020, to reflect state-by-state restrictions on household gatherings.