Sports have finally returned to our lives, though they look a little different in a COVID-19 world. Professional sports leagues have experimented with confining their seasons to a bubble environment, limiting fan attendance, and allowing no fans at all, while college athletes face a unique series of hurdles as they attempt to take the field again. The everyday sports enthusiast is presented with a challenge, too: how do you tailgate in the middle of a pandemic?
Tailgating at home — or, as we’ve called it for years, “homegating” — is the best alternative for game-day gatherings when the stadium parking lot is off-limits or seen as too much of a health risk. In fact, odds are you’ll appreciate the convenience of your own private tailgate after years of loading up a car with equipment, fighting stadium traffic, and playing the high-stakes game of finding a decent parking spot (we’re currently on a pretty lengthy losing streak). That being said, we understand you may be overwhelmed by the prospect of recreating a tailgate in your backyard while also ensuring the safety of your guests. It’s our hope to coach you up with some homegating tips that’ll help get your backyard in game shape.
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1. Make a Game Plan
Any type of party needs careful preparation, but the risks of COVID-19 make planning even more important. Start by brushing up on local, state, and CDC guidelines regarding size of gatherings (to put it in sports terms, their instructions are the basis for your rulebook), then form your guest list based on that advice and how many people your backyard can accommodate.
Now that we mention it, let us stress just how important it is to keep your homegate outdoors. According to the CDC, being outdoors decreases your risk of contracting the virus because there’s more room to socially distance and greater ventilation thanks to fresh air. Note that you should still take the recommended preventative actions like remaining 6 feet away from others who don’t live in your household, wearing a cloth face covering, and frequent hand-washing.
Once you’ve laid your ground rules, clearly communicate them to your guests and ask what they’re comfortable with. Everyone has differing comfort levels concerning the virus and preventative protocols, so it’s extremely important that you’re all on the same page and the expectations are clear before the first beer or bag of chips is opened on game day. Now’s also the time to confirm everyone on your guest lists is symptom-free and hasn’t recently been in contact with a confirmed positive case. Remember that it’s the host’s job to ensure their guests’ safety (no, we’re not talking about the defensive position or the rare 2-point play in football).
Don’t forget to do the normal, fun type of planning as well! If you’re tailgating at home for a night game, give the lighting a test run before kickoff. Harsh flood lights can bring down the party atmosphere, whereas string lights or lanterns create true party vibes. Weather is another concern that needs your attention. Outdoor fans are essential in places where summer heat likes to creep into the fall, just as you can’t go without patio heaters in chillier regions.
2. Keep a Clean Locker Room
Along with distancing and wearing a face covering, sanitation is one of the best defenses against COVID-19. Homegating hosts should embrace this strategy by setting up sanitation stations complete with gloves, disinfectant wipes, tissues, hand sanitizer that includes at least 60% alcohol (per CDC recommendations), and no-touch trash cans. The number and location of these hygiene centers will vary depending on your space, but it’s not a bad idea to place hand sanitizer on every table and in areas you expect to be highly trafficked.
The most shared space will be the bathroom (if not, you need to revise your setup), so make sure it has plenty of hand soap, paper towels, wipes, and trash bins. Ask guests to wear a mask when they enter the restroom and thoroughly wash their hands before exiting. Stashing a bottle or two of hand sanitizer in the bathroom just in case won’t hurt, either.
3. Tackle the Tailgate Trappings
With all the coronavirus concerns, it’s easy to forget the whole point of this thing: hosting a tailgate at home! Set up a tent, hang team flags and banners, incorporate team colors throughout your outdoor space, get your speakers primed for feel-good tunes, and do whatever else you can to make your patio feel like the stadium parking lot. And don’t forget your outdoor TV, which you can set to pregame coverage or an early game to help foster a traditional game-day atmosphere at your homegate.
Of course, there are certain elements of tailgates you shouldn’t recreate. Yard games like cornhole and ladder ball are a staple at most parking-lot parties, but they inevitably result in closer contact than social distancing allows (don’t even ask about beer pong). While you don’t want guests from different households mingling over yard games, there’s nothing wrong with people who’ve been sheltering together bringing their own cornhole tables and keeping games within their circle. Same goes for throwing the football or any other yard game that makes social distancing difficult. Football bingo, meanwhile, is a safe and fun activity everyone can enjoy in their own space — just make enough bingo sheets and distribute them before kickoff.
4. Get in Space
As modern football offenses shift to a more spread-it-out style of play, so must we when it comes to gathering with friends and family. Place your chairs and tables at least 6 feet apart from each other, with closer seating provided for groups of people who’ve been sheltering together. (Two yards at a time isn’t very efficient in football, but it’s just enough in terms of social distancing!) If you have outdoor patio furniture arranged around a TV, make sure you follow the same spacing guidelines. To ensure everyone has a good seat and nobody has to spend the whole game standing, test out the view from each chair or sofa so you don’t invite more people than you can safely accommodate.
Maybe space isn’t the issue, and you simply don’t have enough seating for your guest list. In that case, ask them in advance to bring their own camping chairs. Pre-mark spots for seating before they arrive, and there’ll be no confusion or unintended contact among your guests.
While you’re giving a new meaning to the term “no-huddle offense,” identify areas in your at-home tailgate that will potentially attract multiple people at once. Your grill island and outdoor refrigerator are the most likely gathering places, so devise a plan to keep foot traffic to a minimum in those areas. You may need to monitor guests gravitating toward the grill, but you can easily prevent your fridge or cooler from becoming a germy touchpoint by making your home tailgate a BYOB affair with tailgaters showing up with their own cooler, koozie, and bottle openers. Guests will thank you for keeping them safe while still channeling the vibe of a typical parking-lot tailgate.
5. Be the Equipment Manager
It’s not the most glamorous job, but it’s more important than ever with sanitation at the forefront of every gathering. Fortunately, we’re not talking about muddy uniforms and sweaty shoulder pads — instead, your focus is minimizing person-to-person contact and touching of shared objects. That’s why homegate hosts should prepare and distribute individual cups, utensil sets, condiments, seasoning packets, and anything else guests will need for a traditional tailgate experience.
We recommend writing names on each cup so no mix-ups occur, and even keeping a surplus of cloth masks on hand for those forgetful friends in the group. If you have the time, skill, and desire to go the extra mile, make team-colored masks and hand them out to guests as they arrive. They’ll appreciate being able to show off team spirit and take home a souvenir from their first-ever homegate.
6. Follow the Playbook
You can perfectly implement all our tips for tailgating at home, but it’s still going to take a team effort for a socially distanced homegate to work. So, don’t hesitate to remind guests of your ground rules as they arrive and point out when folks are getting a little too close together. No one expects you to spend all day waiting to crack down on high fives and chest bumps, so consider posting signs with CDC guidelines and homegating rules (plus a “Go Team!” message) around your outdoor space.
Leave no doubt when it comes to bathroom and lunch lines — more on that in a minute — by placing tape markers every 6 feet. (May we suggest using the opposing team’s colors or logo for the floor markers? Something about literally stepping on them just feels right.) Whatever your homegating rules call for, try to find a balance between taking a firm stance and not being too overbearing. You want guests to kick back and feel like they’re right outside the stadium, but not at the expense of putting their health at risk.
7. Seal the Deal with a Pregame Meal
If you’ve ever been tailgating, you can probably picture what the average game-day meal looks like: a crowded line of people standing shoulder to shoulder, waiting to serve themselves from the same trays. That kind of thing just won’t fly in the age of COVID-19. So, what’s an at-home tailgate host to do about feeding the masses? There are 3 main options: premade meals, safe-to-share meals, and a traditional buffet line with a single server.
Premade Tailgate Meals
Though it means more work for the host, this is almost certainly the safest way to feed your guests because everyone comes into contact with their food only. Simply cook whatever you’re serving either beforehand or throughout the day, then package individual portions as you would with any other type of box lunch. The same applies to appetizers like chips and dip, which are gathering hotspots that present the danger of the dreaded double-dip (a faux pas even in non-pandemic times). If you’re offering appetizers — and what good host isn’t? — it’s probably best to set them out, preportioned, on TV trays styled with team colors before guests arrive. Your hors d’oeuvres can be as simple as a personal bag of chips or as meticulous as pre-wrapped pinwheel sandwiches.
Come mealtime, you can hand-deliver dinner to your guests or set up a properly distanced line for them to grab individual portions. Whatever you decide, be sure to plan for extra portions in the event some of your family and friends want seconds. Trust us, few things work up an appetite quite like tailgating in anticipation of a big game.
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Safe-to-Share Tailgate Meals
What exactly do we mean by “safe-to-share?” It’s anything that won’t force guests to rifle through the same platter of food over and over again (remember, this is all about minimizing contact). So, make-your-own meals like fajitas and pizzas along with traditionally shareable dishes like cheese fries and onion blossoms are probably off the table.
Now let’s get to what you can do. Most grilled foods can be considered safe to share, and items like burgers, hot dogs, and chicken wings are typical tailgate fare anyway. The key is how you serve them — either have your resident grill master distribute food to one person at a time, or let guests pull lunch off the grill with their own tongs or with a gloved hand on shared tongs.
Because we’ve mentioned grilling, you might now be thinking about barbecuing some ribs, pulled pork, or a brisket for your homegate. Unfortunately, those dishes don’t exactly fall under the safe-to-share umbrella (they are, however, perfectly fine when preportioned by a hygiene-conscious host). Not only will people have to serve themselves from the same tray, but you’ll also have to perform extra cutting and handling once the food is done cooking. That’s another instance of interaction with food that your at-home tailgate could go without.
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At-Home Tailgate Buffet Line
Perhaps the idea of premade meals already has you exhausted, yet you still want to be in as much control of the food as possible. Staging a buffet line might be a worthwhile solution, but keep in mind that it’s still the most risky option because of increased person-to-person contact. If you go this route, we strongly recommend you designate one person to serve everyone instead of letting guests serve themselves. The server must be serious about hygiene — that means they should perform an extra-thorough hand-washing prior to taking up their station and wear a mask the whole time.
Guests in line also need to be on the ball regarding COVID-19 protocols. As stated above, you should clearly mark off where the line is and provide visual cues to help guests stay 6 feet apart while waiting to be served. They must also be wearing masks when they receive their plate, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to place hand sanitizer near the line to ensure they have germ-free hands at the point of exchange.
No matter how you decide to feed your homegating guests, remember this: anyone involved with food or drink acquisition, prep, and serving must be symptom-free, and they must always handle food with clean hands and while wearing a mask. Be aware that even if you do everything right, some people may be uncomfortable sharing food. If some or all of your guests can’t come to an agreement on how food should be served, ask them to bring their own or eat before arriving. After all, homegating is about safely enjoying each other’s company (and, of course, watching your team win the big game).