As health professionals, we have been asked by many of our patients, friends, and family members how to safely celebrate the holidays during the pandemic. These questions are especially important as the U.S. continues to set new records for daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and as we learn the heartbreaking stories of family gatherings that led to hundreds of new infections and even deaths—including among some people who weren’t even at the event itself. Part and parcel of these discussions is the deeper question of how we can keep ourselves and our loved ones safe but still reclaim what we crave: the close and personal connection with the people we care about. Here, we’ve consolidated our most common advice on having socially distanced celebrations and making safer travel choices. The key takeaway is this: Making big changes in how we celebrate this holiday season will be an investment in the health of our family, friends, and others. But this doesn’t mean we can’t still connect meaningfully with loved ones.
1. Remember that major holidays have contributed to spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Unfortunately, gatherings typical of the holidays (groups of people indoors together for extended periods of time) are a source of COVID-19 outbreaks. If we want to consistently enjoy the holidays “normally” in the future, we have to change the ways we celebrate now. Countries that have succeeded most in this pandemic are those that took early, aggressive action. An October 2020 report from the National Disaster Preparedness Center at Columbia University shows that early physical distancing, mask mandates, and widespread testing helped countries minimize the number of coronavirus cases and deaths in their nations. We may be tempted to say it’s too late for the United States, but it’s better to act now than in December or January—when COVID-19 has claimed even more lives.
2. Prepare to celebrate the holidays differently until we have a widely disseminated vaccine.
Often the best thing about the holidays is spending time with people we don’t see frequently, which generally means the luxury of enjoying their presence over the course of an extended weekend—or longer. This year, in-person celebrations should be different in four key ways: the use of masks, where we gather, the number of people present, and how close we are to each other. The short version: Avoid gatherings, but if you do gather, wear a mask anytime you are indoors with someone you don’t live with.
Unfortunately, it’s unsafe to bring people together from different households for indoor gatherings while COVID-19 rates are rising. The biggest risks are eating, drinking, and sharing sleeping space: anytime that masks are off and people are breathing the same air. Outdoor gatherings (with some creative approaches to staying warm in colder climates) are less risky, but people should still wear masks. When masks must come off for eating and drinking, place people from different households far from one another. Indoor gatherings, if held at all, should be as well ventilated as possible: Opening the windows makes a big difference. Whether indoor or outdoor, keep events briefer than usual since the risk of transmitting COVID-19 increases with time. Limit the number of attendees and households and keep six feet of distance between those not residing in the same household.
A few other measures may also lower risk. Ask guests to quarantine at home for two weeks beforehand if they are able, and consider getting tested prior to getting together. But remember that a negative test is just one layer of protection. Tests can be falsely negative, and even the most accurate test can’t capture exposures you’ve had in the days before the test. Regardless of testing, masks, distance, and outdoor air are still essential. Because risk remains, older folks and those with chronic illnesses should join virtually to keep them healthy and safe.
We know that these are difficult sacrifices to make. Having these conversations with family—about what risk we are willing to take for ourselves, for each other, and for the people we don’t know who might be in contact with each of us—is hard. Yet even with news of effective vaccines on the horizon, we all remain at risk for getting ill or being an unwitting transmitter of illness to others. And nothing would feel worse than knowing a family member or friend became infected with COVID-19 because of your holiday celebration.
3. Steer the conversation about COVID-19 away from politics.
Many Americans agree on following the core components of pandemic safety, like mask wearing, according to a nationally representative poll of 2,200 people conducted by National Geographic and the data-collection company Morning Consult. Within your own family, the safety conversation doesn’t need to have anything to do with one political party or another. Instead, these discussions can be focused around how to keep everyone as safe as possible and the shared goal of ensuring everyone feels safe and will be healthy enough to attend the next holiday gathering. That one uncle of yours may think it’s all overblown. But hopefully he understands that he also needs to do his part to respect his loved ones and keep them well. Here’s some advice for talking about the pandemic if you and your family members disagree about safety measures.
4. Be extra vigilant about travel.
Airplane outbreaks are rare but do occur, according to an October 2020 article published in the medical journal Eurosurveillance. You have to consider a multitude of factors when weighing the safety of flying, including community prevalence of COVID-19 at the departure and landing cities, the behavior of other flyers, the airlines’ rules about masking and empty seats, and the duration of the flight. It’s also important to note that over the course of the pandemic, far fewer people have been flying, meaning data about COVID-19 outbreaks connected to flights may change as people relax their caution and begin to travel more.
Remember that no activity is completely safe. If you engage in one higher-risk activity, then it’s best to be cautious and minimize risk in other areas when you can. There are a number of ways you can fly as responsibly and safely as possible. Keep your mask on at all times (even when seated or walking by yourself, and especially on the plane at the gate when the air-conditioning is off), wear eye protection, travel with your own hand sanitizer, minimize eating and drinking near other people, and keep a good physical distance from others at the airport. Because no one action is 100% protective, layering on a variety of methods increases the likelihood that you won’t get the virus and bring it to your holiday gathering.
5. Remember that following safety measures doesn’t mean you can’t connect meaningfully.
We all need holiday gatherings so much this year. But if we can’t have them in person, as usual, we need to find other innovative ways to make the same connections. Have family members set aside the time to gather virtually and make contingency plans for your event, including extended online gatherings, group phone calls or chats, and thoughtful gestures like food and flower delivery. Knowing that you are doing everything you can to keep your family safe during the holidays is a powerful and generous expression of love.
The more consistently we follow these measures, the sooner we’ll see our way through this pandemic and return to the holiday traditions we treasure. We have the knowledge we need to get back to the holiday table. We don’t want any more people missing from it when we get there.
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