How to Host a Birthday Party Again, According to Experts

For starters, use a candle snuffer.

By Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock
By Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

Remember those cute birthday parties at the start of Covid-19? Zoom fatigue hadn’t set in yet, and we happily showed up to virtual surprise parties populating little squares in party hats. Others decorated their cars and drove by their friends’ homes for all-out parades, serenading them with the happy birthday song and a chorus of honking horns. 

But, like deflating balloons, we quickly lost the creative stamina for orchestrating socially distanced parties. Birthdays began to pass without much hurrah. (Alexa, play “It’s my birthday, and I’ll cry if I want to …”) The truth is, we missed a good ol’ fashioned birthday party and being asked if we wanted a corner piece of cake. 

As for those who did gather for celebrations, theynot surprisinglyincreased their risk of contracting coronavirus. Researchers from Harvard, the Rand Corporation and Castlight confirmed this in a June 2021 study by using health insurance claims data, examining Covid rates of families in the two weeks after one had a birthday. In regions where the virus was widespread, a recent family birthday upped Covid risk by nearly a third, according to the paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

But now, as millions are vaccinated and restrictions are loosened, we’re emerging from our Covid cocoons ready to (cautiously) celebrate. Birthday bashes are back, albeit smaller-scale, we’re not blowing out candles anymore, and mini bottles of hand sanitizer are the party favors du jour. Here’s how to safely throw a birthday party amid a new normal.

Invite vaccinated guests 

Vaccinations are the new VIP. Right now, the very best way to have a safe birthday party is to invite people who are fully vaccinated to the party, says Dr. William Li, MD, president and medical director of the Angiogenesis Foundation and author of Eat To Beat Disease.

You could enact a rule that anyone who is unvaccinated can join the party, but must wear a mask, Li says. (Per the CDC's latest guidance, if your party is indoors, and you live in an area of substantial or high transmission, it's recommended that everyone wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.) However, there’s a lot of eating and drinking that happens at these types of get-togethers, which requires masks coming off and transmission risks going up, he points out. A better compromise, as Li suggests, would be to have a hybrid birthday party and those who aren’t vaccinated could join virtually.

Of course, this can get complicated with family or kids’ birthdays. Guests who are unable to be vaccinated, such as children under age 12, should continue to wear a mask when around others, says Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a family physician and Regional Medical Director at One Medical.

Use these scripts to inquire about vax status 

So, how do you broach the vaccination status conversation when you’re party planning? Etiquette expert Bonnie Tsai of Beyond Etiquette shared some diplomatic scripts. (Go ahead, copy and paste these.)

If you’re sending out formal or e-invitations to your party, Tsai suggests you include a vaccination status section in the invitation by asking “Do you feel comfortable sharing your vaccine status with us?” Guests can then check the box “Yes” or “No.” You can follow up with: “If so, have you been vaccinated or where are you in the process?” 

“It is perfectly reasonable to un-invite unvaccinated people, even if it creates temporary discomfort,” Tsai says. 

If you’re contacting your guests in a more casual manner such as over the phone or text, you can let them know you’re vaccinated and ask them if they are as well, she says. (FYI, it’s not a HIPAA violation to ask someone about their vaccination status.)

If your guest informs you that they aren’t vaccinated, Tsai recommends that you can say this: “We asked this question because we’re only inviting individuals who received their vaccine. If you haven’t received your vaccine, we will have to find another time to celebrate because we are being mindful of the health and safety of those who are attending the party.” 

Keep gatherings small and preferably outdoors

We all had at least one birthday during the pandemic. But some people had two trips around the sun spent in lockdown. So, yeah, it may be tempting to throw a big party to make up for lost time. But, for now, small gatherings with close family and friends are best. Not only are they the safest, but some are feeling a tad socially awkward after being home (and not talking to many other humans) for so many months. 

“Large gatherings can be overwhelming for many reasons [right now], whether it’s social anxiety or stress from going through lockdown,” Tsai says. “Small gatherings allow you more time and space to connect with your guests." 

If you can, hold the party outdoors on a nice day, Li suggests. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, have a “rain date” ready. To help enable social distancing, you can take a page from wedding planning and limit how many people bring a plus one, says event planner Andrew Roby.

The Centers for Disease Control has more guidance for gatherings, like using single-use dressing and condiment packets and setting out a touchless garbage can. Roby also recommends taking drink orders and avoiding self-serve or buffet-style options because it can cause people to cluster in one area. As a host, have extra masks, hand sanitizer, and other cleaning items on hand. 

Help make things less awkward

You’re not alone if you’re feeling more awkward than a middle schooler at a school dance. To help get conversations flowing, set out some TableTopics. The deck includes hundreds of engaging conversation starters — things like “What do you love about your hometown?” — that can help guests connect and talk about something other than the pandemic.

There’s an art to making introductions that can help ease social anxiety. When your guests first arrive, make sure to introduce them to everyone. But for the bonus round, add an identifying comment or similarity they share that will break the ice, Tsai suggests. Because re-entry anxiety is a thing, Roby suggests giving party guests colored bracelets that lets others know their level of comfort. Red bracelets can signal that you want six feet of space, while green bracelets can signal you’re okay with less distance.  

Sing happy birthday, but don’t blow out candles

Even before Covid, researchers examined whether blowing out candles could expel bacteria onto the birthday cake icing along with the blast of breath air, Li says.  A Clemson University study published in the Journal of Food Research found that blowing out candles led to 1,400 percent more bacteria on the icing of a birthday cake, compared to not blowing out the candles.

“Although it may seem gross, most mouth bacteria will not cause you to become sick,” Li says. 

However, if someone is infected with Covid — say, an asymptomatic kid — and he blows out candles as people are huddled around, this could expel virus particles. This isn’t a risk you want to take, says Li, so it’s a good idea to come up with an alternative to blowing out candles. 

You could use a candle snuffer or wave a paper plate to create a rush of air. “Or cut a slice for the person celebrating their birthday and put a single candle on that slice for them to blow out on their own piece of cake,” Li says. FYI: For birthdays in the future, there's even a no-blow candle in the prototype stage.  

However you do it, do make a heck of a wish. Might we suggest it be for the pandemic to be over? 

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