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Where Have All the Houseguests Gone?

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Lela Rose’s dining table can accommodate dozens of guests and is a marvel of social engineering.

One part rises from the floor to create a low seating area Japanese-style. Another part drops from the ceiling on cables to accommodate more people. Those two sections meet a third table which can be extended with leaves, and that tabletop connects to a fourth for more overflow guests.

Ms. Rose, a fashion designer, built her TriBeCa loft to be centered around entertaining. Four nights a week before the pandemic, she would host small gatherings of five or six, and several times a year, she would give rollicking dinner parties with dozens of people and food prepared by guest chefs.

ImageOne of Ms. Rose’s epic dinner parties from before the pandemic.
Credit…Sara Kerens

“I’ve got a table that seats 68,” Ms. Rose said by phone the other day. “When is that going to be viable again?”

Since March, the ever-expanding table has been sized to accommodate only Ms. Rose, her husband and their teenage daughter (their son started college this fall). The clatter and buzz of silverware and flirting and laughter — the sound of adult group fun — is at this point a memory echo. The curtains are drawn in her house and the lights are off most evenings.

“It looks so sad right now,” Ms. Rose said. “It just feels hermetic.”

While the pandemic has made our homes busier in many ways, with all-day video conferencing, children underfoot and hourly UPS deliveries, it has also created a lonely island effect. As Cheryl Mendelson, author of the domestic bible “Home Comforts,” put it in an interview with The New York Times earlier this year, “You are not allowed to have others in.”

We live in self-quarantine, in tight pods of immediate family members. As Covid-19 rages, houseguests pose a risk far greater than a spilled drink. And so they’ve been cast away, and with them, the social rituals and community they bring. The kitchen gossip sessions with a neighbor, the out-of-town friend crashing on the sofa, the Super Bowl viewing party and Sunday family dinners — all require a level of comfort with transmissible germs.

That’s why news outlets are offering advice from hermits.

Houseguests, love them or hate them, reflect ourselves back to us. They allow us to communicate our values to others and show off. This is the dresser I found at a flea market and refurbished myself. This is an oil portrait of my cat. What’s the point of a hero wall without someone to look enviously upon our professional trophies? (The art of trying to impress others through décor, and of “décor peeping,” has now migrated to Zoom.)

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

Houseguests motivate us to clean up. They bring drama and excitement and complication into our lives, as writers from Agatha Christie (“The Unexpected Guest”) to André Aciman (“Call Me by Your Name”) well know. The destabilizing houseguest is as common a fictional device as the marriage plot. Without visitors, a home can start to feel static, boring.

The pandemic has redefined how we use our homes, and for some of us, the inability to properly entertain strikes to the core. While some may welcome their cleared social calendars, others are exploring new ways to socialize in our current locked down reality.

The absence of houseguests will be especially felt this year at Thanksgiving, and during the upcoming holiday season, a time when playing host and being hosted is how we traditionally celebrate. In its bulletin on holiday celebrations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that “small household gatherings are an important contributor to the rise in Covid-19 cases.” Celebrating virtually, the C.D.C. stressed, “poses the lowest risk for spread.”

Many Americans are following that guidance. Forty-seven percent of those surveyed by Morning Consult, the data intelligence company, said they have canceled plans to get together with family and friends for the holidays. The record number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the country may dissuade any hosts still tempted. If not, there’s the matter of mandated restrictions: Last week, New York limited private gatherings to 10 people. The city of Chicago has issued a stay-at-home advisory, with Mayor Lori Lightfoot telling residents, “You must cancel the normal Thanksgiving plans.” Such restrictions on who and how many can enter our homes have become the new frontier in the libertarian turf wars that began with mask mandates.

For hostesses like Ms. Rose, life without people coming by is like a form of solitary confinement. “It’s the whole experience for me,” she said. “I love introducing people to interesting foods. I love the conversation. I could sit all night with people and drink and talk.”

Ms. Rose sighed. “I am missing entertaining like a lost limb.”

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

So is Maneesh K. Goyal. When he moved to New York after college in 1999, Mr. Goyal, a serial entrepreneur who founded MKG, an experiential marketing agency, and who will soon open an Indian restaurant, Sona, in the Flatiron district, entertained at home as a way to build a social network. “I didn’t have friends. I found my groove being a host,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Goyal threw so many parties at his Union Square apartment that he maintained a Google Doc to catalog them all. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, he usually hosted his biggest bash, which he called the Salad Toss Off, a potluck competition he came up with after asking himself: What’s the gay version of the chili cook-off?

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times
Credit…Sara Kerens

“In my apartment there will be 50 to 70 salads, with judges and prizes, and it’s wall-to-wall kids and families,” Mr. Goyal said. “That day for the past 14 years has been a day of filling the house. It’s my happiest day of the year.”

This year’s event has been canceled, and Mr. Goyal is at a loss. He retains a bittersweet memory of his last pre-pandemic gathering, a dinner for 12 on Thursday, March 5. “As soon as people walked in, the energy was askew because everybody knew something was looming,” he said.

He had planned another dinner party for the following week, but, he said, “before I could even cancel, everyone started canceling on me.”

Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

But Winifred Gallagher, a journalist who wrote “House Thinking: A Room-by-Room Look at How We Live,” as well as a book on temperament, “Just the Way You Are: How Heredity and Experience Create the Individual,” said the people who miss hosting are only a portion of the population.

“If you’re more introverted,” Ms. Gallagher said, “you’re experiencing it as a relief.” Several friends have told her as much. “One guy said to me, ‘No more air kisses.’”

Like most writers, Ms. Gallagher is perfectly content to stay inside with her books and research, even for months. Still, she is trying to “repurpose” her home, which is in rural Columbia County, N.Y., and rethink socializing during the pandemic.

Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

“One way I’ve done it is my book club now meets in the garage,” she said. In the big outbuilding where her husband also has his wood shop, “we can load up the wood stove, raise the garage door and meet out there.”

And, Ms. Gallagher added, “We have a new protocol for holiday dinner parties.”

She will see her large family — five grown children, with assorted in-laws and grandchildren — but in a series of more intimate visits, with each child picking a weekend from now through the end of the year. Visitors will stay in the apartment above the garage.

Credit…Antonia Polyn

As for Thanksgiving dinner, “We have an eight-foot-long dinner table. If my husband and myself are at one end, two or three visitors are at the other end, and we raise two windows for cross ventilation, that’s actually a pretty safe situation,” Ms. Gallagher said. “Is it ideal? Is it the same as having 14 people around the table? No. But we can still have the holidays and the kids and that’s how it’s going to be this year.”

She also got a puppy during the pandemic — a mini poodle, Beowulf. “I know this is such a cliché. But I totally understand why,” she said. “Just having this very lively young wiggling thing around is such a trip.”

Michael Bierut, a graphic designer and partner in the firm Pentagram, spent the early months of the pandemic in supermax lockdown at his house in Tarrytown, N.Y. His wife, Dorothy, has lupus, and the couple couldn’t risk even inviting their three grown children over.

“I really liked it, particularly at the beginning,” said Mr. Bierut, who has been commuting to Grand Central Terminal since 1984 and welcomed a closer connection between work and home.

And “being in lockdown and having a hermetically sealed house where everything is reliably where it should be,” he added, “there’s something about it that appeals to me.”

But over time, as he finished his last Zoom call of the day and helped his wife peel potatoes or carrots, and as they sat down to dinner at 6:30 “like old people do,” Mr. Bierut began to feel disquieted by all the quiet.

He thought back to his parents’ house in Ohio, and the way everything remained in the same position from visit to visit, undisturbed. He’d walk in and wonder, “Has anyone even sat in this chair since I was last here?”

The newfound order of his home has come at a cost — his vitality. “It’s not that hard of a jump from there to a lonely life in retirement when washing the coffee cup is a high point of the day as well as checking the mailbox,” Mr. Bierut said. “That was sobering to a degree.”

Mr. Bierut referenced a John Updike short story, “Getting Into the Set,” in which a house-proud couple decorate their New England saltbox beautifully and invite over houseguests who wreak havoc, not necessarily to the couple’s displeasure.

“I’ve had to work to enjoy the mess that houseguests bring,” Mr. Bierut said.

He and his wife have since relaxed a bit and allowed their children to visit. But they are empty-nesters and lately, they are questioning the point of holiday decorating. If a Christmas tree goes up in their living room and no one is around to admire it, does it really exist?

For the Los Angeles-based designer Gere Kavanaugh, inviting people into her home had offered, as she became older and drove less, “a way of getting in touch with the rest of the world.” (She turned 91 last spring, around the time the world first locked down).

On Sundays, Ms. Kavanaugh liked to have old friends and new acquaintances over for tea and show off her collection of teapots and cups. “I’d say, ‘Pick out your cup and saucer and I’ll pour the tea.’ Everyone liked it. It was kind of a ritual,” she said.

Now Ms. Kavanaugh makes do with the telephone and, since May, by staging “porch picnics” of up to six guests at most, four on her porch and two on the bottom steps. She’ll be out on her porch on Thanksgiving with a few neighbors, eating a pumpkin soup she’s been meaning to try instead of turkey.

Mr. Bierut has canceled the office holiday party he hosts every year at his house. A meaningful social exchange will be lost, for himself and his employees, he said.

“Partly it’s the pleasure of welcoming someone into your home and partly it’s the voyeuristic joy of seeing what the host keeps in the bathroom cabinet,” he said. “It adds a dimension to the way we understand each other, doesn’t it?”

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