On Picnicking Politely

Words by Stacey McLachlan

Photography by Alex Falconer

The world is shuttered, but the sun is shining—may as well grab a blanket and lean in to park life. While indoor dinner parties have currently lost their lustre, to say the least, meals en plein air offer an opportunity to socialize responsibly during the time of COVID-19.

It’s charming to see green spaces and campsites peppered with people lounging, sunbathing, and snacking like a 21st-century Georges Seurat painting—but with the new norm of outdoor socializing come new expectations and manners. Here’s how to keep anxieties low and pleasantries high for ourselves and our fellow pandemic picnickers.

Set the scene in advance

You can’t control what your fellow park visitors are doing (or, unfortunately, the music they’re playing), but you can outline the tone for your own group’s behaviour. “Set the scene in advance,” etiquette expert Elaine Swann advises. “Before the event, send a note including information about your intent to make the environment safe for everyone, and then space seating far enough apart so your friends can still engage with each other socially while being distant.” Tote along enough hand sanitizer for everyone, and while face masks aren’t necessary for distanced outdoor interactions, bringing a handful along can’t hurt to help ease the minds of more anxious guests. “As a host,” Swann says, “it’s important for you to set the boundaries and guidelines.”

Take the park less travelled

Just like there are hot restaurants, there are “it” parks—and while part of the fun of picnic life is people watching, weaving your way through a grassy patch that’s packed blanket-to-blanket isn’t ideal. So it can be a good idea to plan your outings for less busy times, or at less busy places. Maybe this is a chance to explore parks that are off the beaten path in your neighbourhood. Or you can take the party somewhere more unusual: someone’s front lawn, a shady grove in the woods, a hidden courtyard, or a secluded beach. If you decide to set up at an actual picnic site, just be sure to sanitize tables and benches before and after your gathering.

Make a blanket statement

If you’re the first to arrive, map out a spot to ensure enough room for your whole crew; that way, a latecomer isn’t at risk of infringing on another group’s bubble. Remember to set up camp six feet (or two metres) between your friends, but also between other groups of picnickers. “Even beyond COVID,” Swann says, “you want to be respectful and keep your distance.”

Keep the guest list small

After being away from friends for so long, a park hang can be a great opportunity to gather together again—but a dozen picnic pals can create a pretty sprawling circle, which is awkward for conversation and hard to control. Keep it to six blankets’ worth of guests (whether individuals, couples, families, or roomies who can cozy up) to keep your park footprint reasonable and the chatter flowing.

Rethink the potluck

Shared dishes are a no-go in this current environment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break bread together in other ways. Think single-serve for food and drink: if you’re craving a communal dining experience, collect contributions and get individually-packaged meals from one take-out spot. And instead of sharing a bottle of something, pick up some canned beverages to pass around.

Be on your best behaviour

The golden rule, as always when it comes to public spaces, should be applied liberally: treat your fellow park loungers as you’d want to be treated (and, of course, pick up after yourself). Keep tunes at a reasonable volume and language family-friendly, and give strangers a respectfully wide berth. Remember, if you’re the host of the get together, you have the right to set the standard of behaviour—and if those around you aren’t behaving in a way that makes you feel comfortable, you have the right to leave. “We need to remember to be flexible and agreeable and respectful of each other,” says Swann. “It’s more important now than ever.”