Georges Budagu Makoko, 47, father of two, is looking forward to cookouts and barbecues but has mixed feelings. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Georges Budagu Makoko wants to be able to fire up the grill and get together with his friends and family at backyard cookouts or picnics this summer, but he’s not completely comfortable with the idea yet.

Though the Portland resident is vaccinated, he has two daughters, 8 and 12, who aren’t. And he knows that not all of the people that he might want to invite are vaccinated.

“Last year was horrible, we stayed home because we could save people’s lives by staying home. Personally, I’m really looking forward to any opportunity to get together with people again at cookouts or outside, but I have mixed feelings about it,” said Makoko, 47, who manages group homes for Serenity Residential Care in South Portland and is publisher of the Amjambo Africa newspaper. “Some friends I know have been vaccinated. Other people who aren’t, I might kind of stay away from.”

Although Maine has dropped most of its COVID-19 safety restrictions and health experts say contracting the virus outdoors is unlikely, many people are still approaching cookouts and outdoor gatherings this Memorial Day weekend and in the coming summer with caution.

After more than a year of pandemic-induced isolation, people are looking forward to enjoying these typical Maine summer activities, but many have reservations about inviting people who are not vaccinated, or people they don’t feel comfortable asking. Others worry about the safety of their children, with vaccines not yet approved for anyone younger than 12. Some are just not emotionally ready to dive back into large summer cookouts, with people lined up elbow to elbow trying to get the last hot dog or a scoop of potato salad.

So the return of summer cookout and picnic traditions is happening slowly, with smaller gatherings than in pre-pandemic times, some because they were planned months ago, when COVID restrictions were still in effect. Other people are waiting until later in the summer to attend or plan large cookouts or parties, when more people might be vaccinated and COVID case numbers might be lower.

The Rev. Fran Bagdasarian is planning a lobster picnic for 40 in July at Fort Williams, but isn’t sure when she’ll start having cookouts at her home. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“I was just thinking about when I might invite people over for something like that, and I think I might start opening up our home in a slow way,” said the Rev. Fran Bagdasarian, an interfaith minister who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “I will probably start having my sons and their families over. Nothing too festive yet.”

Sam Caprari of Falmouth started planning a Memorial Day barbecue in January, as a celebration of both her mother’s and her sister’s birthdays. Based on the restrictions in place then, she and family members decided to have the gathering at a state park in Addison, Vermont, near the New York border.

Her parents live in upstate New York and her sister lives in Vermont, so the spot seemed central. Plus, Caprari’s sister has children (and she doesn’t), so she thought because of travel and school restrictions, it made sense to keep the kids in their home state.

She had planned to have cupcakes instead of birthday cake, so people wouldn’t have to share food, but now that all the adults in the party are vaccinated, she may change the menu, though she says she’s still not ready to have everyone grab chips and salsa out of the same bowl. She said the family was still working out “ground rules” for the gathering, including whether masks might be worn.

The gathering will probably only include a dozen people, but it will be the first time members of her family have been all together since the fall of 2019, Caprari said.

“I think, for some of us, we’ll have to get used to being in a group again,’ said Caprari, 37, who works in medical education.

SAFER THAN LAST YEAR

Hosting outdoor gatherings is always a much safer option, in terms of the transmission of COVID-19, and researchers say they’ve continued to learn how much safer during the past year. Studies show that less than 1 percent of COVID-19 transmissions occur outdoors, said Gonzalo Bearman, chair of the Division of Infectious Diseases and Hospital Epidemiologist at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that fully vaccinated people can “resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic” without wearing a mask or physically distancing. But not everyone is vaccinated, including any children under 12.

There is no doubt people should feel safer about having outdoor cookouts or barbecues this year compared to last year, with more than 50 percent of the state’s population vaccinated as of Friday. But that doesn’t mean doing away with precautions completely, said Bearman and Dr. Dora Anne Mills, chief health improvement officer for MaineHealth. People at cookouts who aren’t vaccinated should continue to wear masks, as should people with suppressed immune systems or illness, Mills said. Children under 12 should continue to wear masks in a crowd, and people who feel sick or have a fever should not attend parties.

The Butler-Goodwin-Gordon family of Gorham and Florida enjoy a picnic at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth last week. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mills said sharing food at a cookout or picnic comes with some risk, but not much, especially among vaccinated people. She said the virus is transmitted three ways – through the air, in respiratory droplets and by people getting the virus on their hands, then touching their face.

Personally, Mills said that she’s planning to have some outdoor gatherings at her home and will probably only invite people she knows are vaccinated “because I feel like it’s the easiest thing to do right now.”

By the Fourth of July, she said, it might be easier to invite more people to gatherings, if COVID case numbers continue to decline and vaccination numbers continue to go up.

Anne Malone Snyder of Kennebunk is planning a Father’s Day lobster bake at her home. The family had to cancel plans to celebrate her father’s 90th birthday with a party last October, for fear of making him or others ill. Everyone she is planning to invite is fully vaccinated, she said, making party planning easy. She expects about 12 people.

Snyder is looking forward to hosting other backyard summer gatherings.

“It’s exciting to think about drinking and dancing and being normal and seeing everyone, after surviving a year and a half of trauma and isolation,” said Snyder, who is in her 50s and works in a surgeon’s office.

Bagdasarian, the reverend, said that although she’s not ready to have a big group at her house just yet, she is planning a fairly large gathering for late July at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth. She’s helping to organize the Rotary Club of South Portland-Cape Elizabeth’s annual lobster bake for members. She said members really missed the event last year, and she expects maybe 40 or so people to attend, out of about 65 members.

She said guidelines for the event are still being worked out.

“I think we all know how to handle ourselves in public after a year of this, and this year we’ll probably all start to feel more comfortable with something like this,” said Bagdasarian.

Sarah Varney, with her daughters Naia 8, left, and Zoe 9, is planning an outdoor party for Zoe’s birthday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Sarah Varney of Windham is planning an outdoor picnic at Sebago Lake State Park in July for her daughter Zoe’s 10th birthday. She had a party for her daughter outside last year too, but only with a few aunts and uncles and a couple classmates. This year, Varney expects to have about 35 people, including 10 or so children. She’s planning to bring sandwiches, which are easier to prepare.

She said she hasn’t thought a lot about whether she’ll ask people if they are vaccinated, though she thinks all the adults probably will be. She’s assuming the kids, running around and splashing in the lake, will not wear masks, though some might because they have become so used to masks at school and may feel more comfortable with them on, for now.

“Last year we had everything individually wrapped, I put vegetables in little baggies,” said Varney, 39, who works as a nurse educator. “This year, it will be more relaxed.”

Donna Robinson of Windham plans to hold her usual Fourth of July cookout for friends and family this year, with maybe 20 invited guests. She’s hoping to have a variety of lawn games, like corn hole and bocce. Last year she had a gathering on the Fourth too, but with about half as many people.

She said gatherings last year, including hers, were made more stressful by all the precautions needed and about worrying whether everyone was doing “the right thing” in terms of masking and social distancing. This year, knowing that just about everyone she knows will be fully vaccinated, she feels more relaxed about hosting a gathering.

“Last year, I had canisters of Lysol wipes instead of paper towels, and everybody was just so concerned about who was coming and is everybody going to be doing what they should be doing,” said Robinson, 62, a floral manager for Shaw’s supermarkets. “This year, it’s not nearly as stressful.”


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