By Gwendolyn Elliott

As the vaccine continues its steady rollout and spring inches toward summer, for the first time in over a year, it’s actually reasonable to think about making plans and gathering with friends again.

But this time, a casual backyard get-together is likely to be fraught with fresh anxieties for both hosts and guests: Where do masks, social distancing, and hand sanitizer fit into group settings now?

While there is no official guidebook for re-entry into familiar ways of socializing, we turned to our local entertaining experts — area tasting room staff and managers — for some of the tricks, tips and hospitality hacks they used over the last year that might apply at home.

Set clear expectations.

  • “This really helped the guests relax and showed we cared about keeping them safe,” says Traci Garrett, tasting room manager at Sleight of Hand Cellars. Being upfront about what your guests can expect (that surfaces have been sanitized, how many guests are expected) as well as your own expectations (such as mask requirements or any off-limit areas) will set your gathering up for success.

Scale back.

  • “Less guests are more manageable,” Garrett says. Try to keep your eagerness to unite with friends and family in check with your ability to host a gathering where everyone feels safe and comfortable.

If practical, use signs,

  • Garrett advises. “Whatever it is you need to communicate — keeping 6 feet of distance, wearing your mask when you go inside to use the bathroom — clear signage can help you get the word across while observing a safe, social distance.”

Be next-level prepared,

  • says Derek Brendle, general manager at Caprio Cellars. “In the business, we call it ‘mise en place,’ or ‘everything in its place.’ COVID has increased the need for even more advanced setup and planning.” Anticipating your guest’s needs and requests (“Do you have any hot sauce?“ “Can I have an extra napkin?”) “translates to a safe, more well-planned event.”

Set up self-serve stations,

  • Brendle says. “Batch out a series of cocktails and have them in containers ready to go.” Guests serve themselves and the DIY aspect minimizes contact while adding “a certain amount of interaction people really enjoy.”

Hack your party recipes.

  • “Big party plates are getting phased out, but there are ways you can re-imagine them,” says Bendle, who recently modified a family-style vegetable gratin recipe to be served individually. “I took a ring mold, cut out single servings, plated them individually, and finished them under a broiler.”

Seat everyone immediately,

  • says Kristine Bono, general manager at Tertulia Cellars. “This cuts back on mingling and minimizes contact between guests.”

Make it adults only.

  • With extra space at a premium and physical contact a touchy subject, kids will present challenges, Bono explains. “Their stuff takes up extra space, they’re running around everywhere.” To make your first post-COVID-19 gatherings more manageable, you may want to consider restricting the guest list to adults.

Call to check in.

  • Bono suggests calling your guests a day or two before to see how they’re doing and to answer any questions. “It’s a small gesture that can make a big difference in making your guests more comfortable.”

Create barriers to clustering.

  • Two-person cocktail tables or strategically spaced conversation nooks can help keep guests from gathering too closely, says Katie Pekar, hospitality and events manager at Foundry Vineyards. “It feels like you’re creating a place for private conversation, but really you’re just spreading people out.”

Be weather ready.

  • Knowing how to keep your guests comfortable in all weather will keep them from seeking relief in places you might not want them exploring. Recalling triple digit temps last summer, Pekar offered two words of advice: “Mister kits.”

Personalizing place settings,

  • says Jordan Hostetter, tasting room manager at Abeja, will help provide the visual direction guests need to find their place quickly. “People tend to gravitate towards where you want them to be just putting their name on the table.”

Keep a supply of masks for guests.

  • “People will forget,” Hostetter says, “but they don’t mean to be neglectful.” If you are expecting guests to wear a mask at your gathering, make sure you have extras for those who may forget, just to be safe.

Bring out the sturdy, all-weather outdoor furniture,

  • Hostetter says. “It’s super basic, but it works for us.” Unlike folding chairs, popular outdoor seating such as Adirondack or teak chairs can be set up in advance — one less thing for you to do day-of.

When in doubt, don’t go out. It’s a common sense precaution worth keeping in mind as life resumes the feeling of how it used to be. If you don’t quite feel ready for guests, or don’t feel up for a party, it’s OK to reschedule or politely decline an invitation. After all, while we’re still getting used to gathering again, by now we’re all really practiced at spending time apart.