Skip the restaurant and have your own picnic outside.

By Emily VanSchmus
May 20, 2020
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As the weather warms up and we close out the second month of strict coronavirus-related restrictions, it’s natural to feel a little restless. Luckily, the outdoors aren’t off-limits. Outdoor spaces like parks or walking trails provide a safe environment that allows you to get out of the house for a while. And if you practice proper social distancing measures, it can also be a great opportunity to safely hang out with friends. And while some restaurants across the country have opened up this week, you may feel safer opting for a picnic in the park rather than going inside a restaurant. 

We talked to Suzanne Bartlett Hackenmiller, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and the medical advisor and for AllTrails (an app designed to help you get outside safely), about the benefits of spending time outside and what you can do to make your outdoor gathering as safe as possible. 

Credit: eli_asenova/Getty Images

Hackenmiller told us if you’re feeling restless or rundown, making plans to go outside for a picnic (or even just a walk outside) is one of the best ways to boost your mental health during this time. “As long as you are healthy and practicing responsible social distancing, it’s more important than ever to get outdoors at this time; not just for physical health, but particularly for the mental health benefits,” she says. “Getting outside also supports our immune system. From the vitamin D that we soak in from the sun (just remember the sunscreen!) to the phytoncides we inhale from the trees and soil, spending time outdoors is a great way to stay healthy.”

But keep in mind that just because you’re outside doesn’t mean you get a free pass. “Even as restrictions start to loosen, we should all still be cautious and use our best judgment when out in public spaces,” Hackenmiller says. You’ll still need to practice social distancing, and there are other safety tips you should know, too. Here are seven guidelines you should follow for a safe picnic. 

1

To cut down on big gatherings of people, some large parks and beaches are closed, but many local parks are open. As long as the park is open to the public, it’s a safe option for a picnic. But Hackenmiller told us that even though the park may be open, a lot of the facilities (like parking lots and restrooms) may be closed. The easiest way to choose your picnic spot is by checking the AllTrails app or your local parks department website to check the status of park closures. Consider the number of other people around: If you get to the park and the parking lots are full, it’s a good indication that there are too many other people at that location. 

Once you find the perfect spot, just remember that your patch of grass should be a good distance away from others who are gathered in the same park. If you’re concerned, you can opt to have a picnic in your backyard!

2

Hackenmiller says the safest picnic is one with just you and the person or people you’re quarantined or social distancing with (like a roommate or your immediate family). She explained that while we often have the best intentions of staying six feet away from others, even the best-laid plans can fail. “We’re human, and we crave social interaction, especially at a time like this,” she explains. “I see far too often that people say they are going to stay six feet apart from friends, but over time, this commitment is overlooked. I strongly recommend only going out with those in your household so there is no temptation to neglect social distancing recommendations.”

3

While an outdoor picnic might seem like an unlikely place to show off your new fabric face mask, Hackenmiller recommends bringing one along. “We clearly can’t wear them when eating, but I do recommend wearing a mask when scoping out your picnic spot and leaving the space, or walking amongst others,” she says. “Use good judgment when selecting your spot, and try to stay even further than six feet apart from other parties.” If you don’t have a mask, you can make your own or order one of these masks you can buy online.

4

While an outdoor park is one of the safest places to gather right now, there are a few precautions you should take. Avoid using amenities that are offered to the public: Bring a blanket to sit on instead of gathering at a picnic table, and use your own portable grill like the top-rated Weber 14-Inch Portable Grill ($34.99, Target) instead of the public grills you sometimes find at parks. (Better yet, grill ahead of time and bring it with!) You’ll also want to skip using the public bathrooms at the park to cut down on the number of surfaces you touch and avoid being in an enclosed space with strangers.

5

Hackenmiller suggests not relying on the park for anything other than a sunny patch of grass. She recommends bringing plenty of water and drinks because the water fountains have been shut off for safety reasons in many areas. You’ll also want to bring hand sanitizer to use before and after eating. If you don’t have any, these 7 hand sanitizers meet the CDC guidelines, and you can purchase them online.

6

Sure, you can’t go out to a fancy restaurant right now, but you can still turn your picnic into a fancy affair! Dress up your picnic with a pretty blanket and a couple of pillows, and you’ll feel like you’re at a casual outdoor happy hour. A Teema Towel Blanket ($36, Teema) is the perfect choice for a picnic because it’s as soft (and pretty!) as a regular blanket, but is made from cotton material that’s meant to be laundered like a towel, so you don’t have to worry about laying it down on a patch of grass.

7

It might be tempting to whip up an elaborate Charcuterie board worthy of your Instagram feed, but it’s actually safer to pack individually-portioned food. Rather than a tray or board everyone will be touching, opt for single sandwiches (these are our favorite sandwiches for summer!) and package them in eco-friendly beeswax wraps instead of plastic bags. Be sure you’ve properly sanitized everything and washed your hands thoroughly before preparing and packaging the food. It’s also a good idea to skip the traditional picnic basket in favor of a bag or cooler that will keep your food cold: We like the Warm Stripe Cooler Tote ($8, Target).

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