Is it safe to party when swine flu threatens to crash your bash?
It's a question many revelers may be asking this year as the holiday party season coincides with an anxiety-provoking flu season.
The good news is that while it is true that mingling over punch and canapes can help spread the H1N1 virus, health and entertaining experts say it's possible to throw a holiday party without making everyone wear surgical masks and hazmat suits.
It's a question of managing risk.
"Party. Party cautiously," advises Dr. Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. That means keep things clean, be careful with finger food, forget the punch bowl and maybe even reconsider the mistletoe.
And remember to have fun.
"Just like we say with terrorists, you really don't want to let the flu win," said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
Swine flu is spread mainly through coughing or sneezing, though people also can be infected by touching something with flu viruses on it and then touching their mouth or nose. So basic common-sense rules apply for parties.
Do not throw a party or attend a party if you have a fever, cough or other flu symptoms. Keep your hands clean. Cough and sneeze into your elbow. Take steps to make sure guests do the same. Party planners suggest placing bottles of hand sanitizer and tissues in plain view to send a subtle signal.
"Obviously, the nature of parties is all about mixing and mingling, and that's about the opposite of what people tell you to do as far as the flu season," said Jennifer Sbranti, founder and editor-in-chief of hostesswiththemostess.com. "But it's really all about taking some precautions."
For party food, think single servings.
Avoid offering chips, candies, nuts or any food in big, open bowls that people could reach their potentially contaminated hands into.
"A hand going into a bowl is not a good thing," said Doron.
Instead, consider serving individual portions of hors d'oeuvres such as peanuts or cheese cubes on little pleated paper cups or small appetizer plates, said Denise Vivaldo, author of "The Entertaining Encyclopedia: Essential Tips for Hosting the Perfect Party."
Sbranti suggests serving crudite in little glass votive candle holders, salads in tiny Chinese food-style takeout containers or even french fries in paper snow cone cups. Culinarymedianetwork.com chief executive officer Jennifer Iannolo said soup can be served in espresso cups and desserts in ramekins.
"I would recommend having fun with it," said Iannolo.
Covered food is better. Sbranti said hosts might want to plate and serve the food instead of laying out a buffet.
Either way, consider leaving the punch bowl in the china closet. Dipping used cups into a communal bowl is never a great idea, flu season or no. Ladles lessen risk, but punch bowls still offer a large surface area for germs to land on.
Doron suggests serving drinks from narrow-necked bottles. Sbranti recommends beverage dispensers with lids and side spouts.
Make sure your guests can keep track of their drink glasses. Party supply stores offer everything from wine charms to hook around glass stems to stretchable colored bands that fit around beer bottles.
And don't expect miracles. Being in proximity to people — on a bus, in the office, at a party — simply has inherent risks.
"Probably the greater danger is people getting together when they talk to each other," Morse said. "If someone has the flu, they will undoubtedly through close contact give it to others far more than food. Though you obviously want to be careful."
Maybe the hardest party trick for a host during flu season is simultaneously taking health precautions and making guests feel welcome.
Potential problems start at hello.
Doron suggests avoiding handshakes and maybe opting for a friendly elbow bump instead. Anna Post, an etiquette expert at the Emily Post Institute, said that guests who are leery of shaking hands can offer polite words instead, something like: "Excuse me for not shaking hands, but it's great to meet you." The same approach can be taken to avoid a peck on the cheek.
As for mistletoe, a kiss on the lips likely presents a higher risk for virus transmission than mere cheek kissing. Though Morse notes, "I think someone you're willing to kiss on the lips is someone you're willing to take a chance with the flu."
Hosts could head off some problems by adding a sentence to invitations asking that people exhibiting signs of being contagious to refrain from attending, says Doron. But Post looks at it differently, saying people should trust their guests to make the right decisions.
"If you're really that concerned about being sick," Post said, "you probably shouldn't be throwing a party."