How to Politely Decline an Invitation to Gather During COVID-19 (Plus, a note on quarantine-friendly alternatives and Zoom etiquette)

By Emily Spacek

Social etiquette in the days of the coronavirus pandemic is changing. No more handshakes, no more hugs, no more clinking glasses together during a group cheers. The new polite thing to do? Not spread germs. The question is, how draconian must we be to accomplish that objective?

Salt Lake City’s recent stay-at-home order means we should now limit our trips outside to “essential activities” only. But what does this mean for the extroverts and eccentrics among us? Will we resist the pressure to stick to plans made before COVID-19 struck? How do we muster up the courage to turn down new invitations while still keeping friends close?

Here are some anecdotes and bits of advice we offer as you grapple with staying social at a distance.


  1. Be graceful—but firm— in your decline

Regardless of how others might make you feel, declining physical interactions during this time is not overreactive. No one should hold it against you for being cautious and socially aware during a global pandemic.

Still, it may be necessary to let some of your friends and family know why you’ve put up physical distance boundaries and why it’s important to you to stick to those boundaries.

Be direct. Maybe you live with someone with compromised health or are the only outside contact for someone in the over-65 crowd. Maybe you yourself have been potentially exposed.

Four of the five jobs in CATALYST art director Polly Mottonen’s household are healthcare jobs, so they are all still working. Due to potential exposure at work, her family has had to take extra precautions including strictly avoiding contact with the population outside of work and home.

Sophie, CATALYST’s community outreach director, used a similar excuse to avoid feeling overreactive with her friends. “Some of my friends were getting together for one of their birthdays. Even though there were only eight of us, I still felt like we shouldn’t all be meeting. I didn’t have the heart, though, to outwardly protest their gathering. Should we? How do you do this nicely without being a big bummer? I told them I had come into contact with someone who had come into contact with someone who had tested positive (true story) for coronavirus and that I didn’t want to risk exposing them.”

But even if you don’t have an “excuse” to back up your decision, your concern is still valid! Try simply expressing that gatherings, even small ones, increase the risk of COVID-19 spread. Depending on how close you are, you might consider encouraging others to do the same.

“I had to decline an invite to lunch by two wonderful friends who wanted to get together— literally— and had to explain that I am choosing to be super cautious right now about in-person meetings,” explained Naomi Silverstone, CATALYST/Common Good Press Board of Trustees. “This is a time for deep re-wiring— not always comfortable, but ultimately feels like I am breathing more fully.”


  1. Offer quarantine-friendly alternatives

In a day and age where we remain connected through our phones, tablets and laptops, many gatherings can avoid postponement or cancellation by simply being re-configured to the digital realm.

Instead of meeting physically for that lunch, Naomi and her two friends planned a virtual conversation where they each sat and ate their private lunches while connecting through their screens.

“We’ve been to two birthday parties via Zoom and have two more planned this week. Book clubs, art lessons and cocktail hours—you name it, it can all be done via Zoom,” writes Susan Dillon, also a CATALYST board member.

No, it’s not the same to see your loved ones over a screen. But when thought out creatively, or even by coincidence, virtual gatherings have the potential to be just as if not more enjoyable.

“For the last two Saturday nights, several friends and I have had a virtual cocktail party on Zoom. Last Saturday, our host asked us to dress like we were 5 years old dressing up in our mothers’ closets… It was a blast! Great conversation and so nice to see everyone’s face!” Paula Evershed, former board member, wrote to us.

When Sophie decided not to show up physically to her friend’s birthday party, she FaceTimed in instead. “It was actually quite efficient,” she said, “I even made it into two of the Polaroids they took that night! Funny enough, in one of the Polaroids the flash was covered so everyone in the room was too dark for the camera to see. My glowing face on the phone screen was the only face to make it into the photo!”


  1. “Zoom” but with poise

As pointed out by Susan Dillon, in the absence of some of the normal social ques of parties, what are the guidelines for etiquette on Zoom?

“It’s not like when you go out to dinner and the check comes. How does one gracefully exit a Zoom gathering that is just, well, dull? Hard to have the excuse of having somewhere else to be,” she writes.

“Another question: Is it rude to eat while on a Zoom? I say yes, unless everyone is eating. For Joe it’s no— it’s more about whether he is hungry. Zooming while enjoying cocktails seems to liven up the atmosphere. Plus, there’s an added advantage of not having to worry about how you’re getting home—you are home!”

We’re all still just figuring this out. The transition will come with its kinks and coils. The takeaway is to stay true to your boundaries while approaching the decisions of others with understanding, respect and empathy. True friendship will outlast the coronavirus.




This article was originally published on April 2, 2020.